By Matthew Wexler
There is something deliciously sinister happening at The Pershing Square Signature Center. And if it weren’t ripped from headlines of yesteryear and today, I might be able to laugh off Jerry Springer – The Opera as a silly parody of a talk show impresario who happened to be at the right place at the right time.
Timing has been fundamental to Jerry Springer long before his syndicated tabloid talk show hit the air in 1991. Born in London to parents fleeing the Holocaust, the family immigrated to the U.S. in 1949 when Springer was just five-years-old. His story embodies the American Dream, as he shared with his alma mater, Northwestern University School of Law, in a 2008 commencement speech: “In one generation here in America, my family went from near-total annihilation to the ridiculously privileged life I live today because of my show,” Springer said, “Indeed in America, all things are possible.”
Such possibilities are fodder for Jerry Springer – The Opera, featuring music, book and lyrics by Richard Thomas (with book and additional lyrics credited to Stewart Lee). The four-act opera (presented with one brief intermission) may not have quite the sweeping arias of Turandot, La Traviata, or Carmen, but Thomas’s intricate musical passages, complex choral arrangements, and tinges of accessible musical theatricality make for a captivating score.
Act I takes place on the studio set and includes several inflammatory scenarios often seen on such talk shows, including infidelity, fetishes, and domestic violence. Overseeing the chaos is Jerry himself (smartly played by Broadway veteran Terrence Mann) and his warm-up man (Will Swenson). Things take a turn for the worse for Jerry, and by the end of the act, the KKK does a tap number and bullets fly. And that’s before we get to purgatory and hell for Jerry to justify his decades of feeding on America’s underbelly. He makes a good case, though, saying:
Everybody has a story, which should be told. No matter what your background, no matter what you’ve done you deserve your voice. Say what you like about me and the show—I give a platform to the marginalized and dispossessed. It’s syndicated but still a platform.
Jerry Springer – The Opera premiered at London’s National Theatre in 2003 then transferred to The West End, snagging four Oliver Awards, including Best Musical. Its life stateside has been more precarious, perhaps because it hits too close to home. Now being presented by The New Group, this production marks its first fully staged incarnation in New York City.
In this case, time is on Jerry’s side. Its themes, both sweeping and intimate, are on America’s hot plate (there’s even a shout-out for tighter gun control) — all masterfully overseen by director John Rando and choreographer Chris Bailey. Rando, who won a Tony Award for directing Urinetown, here taps into that same sense of altered reality, harnessing the 21-member ensemble’s immense talents, each a triple-threat and terrifically unique in his or her own way. The creative team, including scenic design by Derek McLane, costume design by Sarah Laux, lighting design by Jeff Croiter, and sound design by Joshua D. Reid, elevate Rando’s vision and help to focus the occasionally unwieldy action.
Mann captures the essence of Jerry Springer without resorting to caricature, while Swenson is devilishly delightful as his sidekick. Other stand-outs include Justin Keyes in the dual role of diaper-wearing Montel and Jesus, Jill Paice as Baby Jane, and Tiffany Mann, who brings down the house with her decibel-shattering stripper pole number, “I Just Wanna Dance.”
With enough momentum, perhaps Jerry Springer – The Opera will finally make it to Broadway. In the meantime, there are plenty of theatrical punches worth seeing at The Pershing Square Signature Center.
Jerry Springer – The Opera
The New Group at The Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street, NYC
Through March 11, 2018
Matthew Wexler is The Broadway Blog’s editor. Read more of his work at wexlerwrites.com.