Tuesday 6 March 2018

Jerry Springer the Opera

The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre, New York
27th February, 2018

"This is my Jerry Springer moment"

The Linney Courtyard Theatre (at the Signature Center, home to The New Group) is roughly the size and configuration as the Donmar with the audience seated on three sides of the thrust stage. Playing elsewhere in the Signature Center that evening was David Rabe’s new play Good for Otto with a starry cast which includes Ed Harris and Rhea Pearlman, and a revival of Edward Albee’s double bill At Home at the Zoo. The spacious second floor foyer includes a book and merchandise shop. It’s difficult to immediately name a UK equivalent, but it’s clear that The New Group is committed to making contemporary theatre without the financial pressures of Broadway.

So, onto the show itself.

Admittedly, the majority of my knowledge of The Jerry Springer Show comes from The Simpsons, and beforehand the only song I knew from Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s musical was (the utterly fabulous and anthemic) ‘I Just Wanna Dance’. Despite this, I’ve wanted to see Jerry Springer: The Opera for years. I still remember watching news reports about the demonstrations outside the Cambridge Theatre in London when the original National Theatre production transferred to the West End. Since then I’ve always thought ‘what’s the fuss about?’. Well, now I’ve finally seen the show, courtesy of The New Group and director John Rando’s revival, I can say that, while certainly not one for the easily offended, Thomas and Lee’s creation is one of razor-sharp satire, lewd, crude and devilishly funny humour, and a surprising dose of cultural sublimity and heart.

Stepping into the auditorium we’re confronted with Derek McLane’s replica of the Jerry Springer studio (Grecian columns, those weird wall fan things, etc.) complete with tv screens showing autocue lines and some hilariously accurate commercial advertisements (Drugs and Religion seem to be the hot sellers in the US). Members of the cast are seated within the auditorium before springing into glorious and garish action for the overture. From the offset we are immersed in the larger-than-life Springer experience; we are roused by the maniacally exuberant warm-up guy (Will Swenson) into chanting for ‘Jerry! Jerry!’ to appear (which, as one normally adverse to audience participation, I rather enjoyed!), and thus, the subsequent cooing ‘ahhhs’ or jeers of ‘whore!’ from the chorus-cum-audience make us complicit in the nastiness and mockery – a masterly act of pure theatricality. Springer mildly mediates and stirs up his guests, who epitomise all the preposterous and somewhat unsavoury stories from those members of the public wishing to air their dirty laundry for all to see. We are treated to conflicts of the heart (Dwight has been cheating on three women), mind (Montel loves Andrea but wants her to fulfil his paraphilic infantile fetish – yes, I googled the term, basically he wants to be a man-baby), and stomach (ever wanted to see a tap-dancing Klu Klux Klan? Well, your wish is Thomas and Lee’s command). To anyone that’s ever had the misfortune of seeing The Jeremy Kyle Show (the UK’s mouthier, angrier and more bitter answer to Springer) these situations are not as far-fetched as they sound!

So far, so Springer. Yet when Jerry gets accidentally shot by a raging man in a nappy (or diaper, I suppose, as we’re in the US) events move into even more surreal territory and, faced with death, Jerry is made to question his career choices. Now in purgatory, Springer is confronted with the ultimate bad-guy, the Devil himself, and is forced to mediate a showdown between Satan and Jesus in order to avoid a personal hell of being ‘fucked up the ass with barbed wire’. We witness testimonies from the Virgin Mary, Adam and Eve, and even God himself, whose operatic declaration that ‘it ain’t easy being me’ is pretty universal in its subversive luminescence. This biblical war brilliantly lampoons the finger-pointing, gawp-fest that is junk television; we’re all there for a good fight regardless of the outcome, and we are all waiting with seething anticipation to be outraged as we’re fed controversy after controversy for controversy’s sake. The morality of this ethos is inspected, both for us audience members, and Springer as the provider of the perverse peep-show. This is no more apparent than when the dead souls of Springer’s guests appear before him in purgatory.

For a show that moves heaven and earth (quite literally), the real genius comes in Thomas and Lee’s juxtaposition of high and low culture. The songs are truly operatic – the opening ‘Overtly-Ture’ features a blissful myriad of melodies reminiscent of any choral devotion – and the thematic incongruity of the lyrics – ‘what the fuck? What the fuck? What the fucking fucking fuck?!’, ‘Momma give me smack on the asshole’ – provide a real meatiness to proceedings as ears and eyes fight it out alongside head, heart and soul in what is truly a cacophony of delights, from the luscious singing, to the eye-watering comedy, and philosophical moralising.

The cast are completely excellent and clearly relish all the naughtiness and crude antics they get to perform nightly. Tiffany Mann’s appearance as wannabe pole-dancer, Shawntel, is as elating as any other traditional ‘I Want’ musical theatre number, and she belts out ‘I Just Wanna Dance’ with unrestrained gusto (furthermore, her refrain of ‘talk to the ass’ is air-punchingly satisfying). Swenson’s energy is palpable as he gleefully chomps the scenery in his dual roles as Jonathan, the seedy warm-up guy, and the slick, goateed Devil. With his temperate manner and easy delivery Terrence Mann is unnervingly convincing as Jerry Springer while never losing that knowing twinkle in his eye (although why you’d cast Mann in a role where he never sings is beyond me!). Finally I must mention Luke Grooms as Dwight/God, whose lung-busting tenor register near blew my ears off in the intimate studio space!

While I’ve been waiting nearly fifteen years to see Springer, and much of the initial controversy has abated, it’s fair to say that the musical still resonates with a contemporary society. For example, a desperate-to-keep-his-job Jonathan urges Jerry to run for president only to be laughed aside by the man himself. A reality show star as President of the United States of America? Don’t be absurd!... More stinging is one of Jerry’s ‘final thoughts’ during his closing monologue. As he lies bleeding, dying on the studio floor, he quips ‘I’d like to add my name to the list of celebrities calling for tighter gun-control’. Whether ad-libbed by Mann or part of the original script (if someone could enlighten me, it would be much appreciated), this line is a poignant reminder of the endless debates, tragedies and controversies in America today. Thomas and Lee hold a mirror up to society, and if you’re offended by Jerry Springer then perhaps we need to take a good look at the way the media shapes our ethics, politics, opinions and tastes.

Jerry Springer: The Opera plays at The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Theatre until 1st April.

Terrence Mann and the cast of Jerry Springer: the Opera. Photo credit: Monique Carboni.

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