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Jerry Springer the Opera
Music by Richard Thomas, Book and Lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas
Directed by Scott Miller
New Line Theatre
March 6, 2015

Keith Thompson, Matt Pentecost Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Theatre

Keith Thompson, Matt Pentecost
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Theatre

The Jerry Springer Show and its infamous host are well known for shocking subject matter, outrageous guests, and sensationalist topics to turn the talk show format into a kind of voyeuristic entertainment.  New Line’s latest production, Jerry Springer the Opera, is in the same vein. It seems to want to be about something, although in the end it comes across much like its subject–a celebration of sensationalism that is entertaining at times, but has little sense of direction. Still, it’s got some intriguing ideas, and New Line’s cast has done about as well with the material as I could imagine.

This show is kind of frustrating, because it has quite an interesting concept, although it doesn’t seem to really want to go anywhere meaningful with it. The first act is basically a musicalized re-creation of a typical Springer show, with some slightly extreme representations of Springers’ usual types of guests.  There’s an enthusiastic audience, a warm-up man (Matt Pentecost) with a mind of his own, and Springer himself (Keith Thompson), who is the only character who never sings.  He’s a talk-show host, and his job is to talk, I suppose. His guests for this particular program include Dwight (Zachary Allen Farmer), who is cheating on his fiancee Peaches (Taylor Pietz) with both her best friend Zandra (Lindsey Jones) and drag queen Tremont (Luke Steingruby). There’s also Montel (Marshall Jennings), whose secret he’s kept from his own fiancee Andrea (Christina Rios) is that he wants to be a grown-up baby and wear diapers. He’s also got a paramour of his own, the equally child-like and crass Baby Jane (also Pietz).  A third story involves would-be pole dancer Shawntel (Anna Skidis) and her controlling boyfriend Chucky (Ryan Foizey).  The usual amount of shocking revelations, audience cheering and jeering, and violence that has to be broken up by security man Steve (Matt Hill) ensues, with Jerry increasingly at odds with the warm-up guy, who seems to want to encourage the audience’s rowdiness. That’s only Act One. The second and third acts inject a supernatural, fantastical element, as Jerry descends into hell and has to host a version of his show at the behest of Satan himself (also Pentecost), involving confrontations with Adam and Eve (Foizey and Skidis), Jesus (Jennings), Mary (Jones) and eventually God (Farmer).

It’s an ambitious concept, and there are some clever conceits. The fact that everyone but Springer is singing full-out operatic arias is intriguing, as is the fact that they’re all playing this as seriously as possible. The songs range from mildly shocking to to unapologetically vulgar.  The style ranges from traditional opera to the soulful “It Ain’t Easy Being Me”, sung by God. The fact that one of the catchiest tunes is called “Mama Gimme Smack On the Asshole” is a testimony to how outrageous this show is trying to be. I say “trying” because I don’t think it succeeds in being much more than an exercise in shock value.  The whole “Springer in hell” sequence has a lot of promise as a concept, but it seems like a lot of the ideas were thrown in more for cheap humor than for any sort of substance.  I found myself wishing the show had pursued its subject further rather than just bringing up a concept and then just racing by to the next one for a joke.  It’s a show full of almost-interesting ideas, and I have no problem with raunchy humor if there’s substance to it. This show, however, seems to be all about being raunchy while only bringing a semblance of substance. It’s got a very interesting sense of style, though, and I’m sure for Springer fans (and I’m admittedly not one), it might have more appeal.

Still, even though the show itself disappoints me, the production team at New Line has put in an admirable effort.  The cast is strong, and the usually impressive New Line singing isn’t quite as operatic as one might expect, but the energy is there and there are quite a few memorable performances. Thompson is in good form as the somewhat incredulous Springer, who just wants to do his show without being bothered. Pentecost, as the warm-up man and a particularly determined Satan, is a real stand-out, with a strong voice and great deal of oily, smarmy energy. Pietz makes a memorable impression, especially as the naughty, childlike Baby Jane, and Farmer gets to show off his powerful vocals doubling as the duplicitous Dwight and a khaki-clad, ponytailed God.  There are also excellent performances from Jennings as Montel and Jesus, Steingruby as the brash Tremont, Rios as the somewhat mousy Andrea, and Skidis as the determined Shawntel and as Eve.  There’s also a solid performance Hill as the ever-faithful security man, Steve.  Adding to the main cast is an enthusiastic ensemble that brings energy to various roles, including Springer’s studio audience.

The technical arena is where this show achieves its most obvious success. With a fairly basic set by Rob Lippert that recreates the setup of Springer’s talk show, Lippert’s lighting adds dramatic effect especially after the whole scene descends into hell.  The costumes, by Sarah Porter, range from the gloriously gruesome (some creepy, ghoulish nurses) to the stylishly suave (Pentecost’s devilish garb), to the outrageously colorful range of outfits worn by the equally outrageously colorful guests.  All of these elements blend to creat a fantastical, occasionally macabre atmosphere that contributes an air of stylistic grandiosity to the production that I wish was equaled by the script.

Overall, I would say this is a show that tries for more than it accomplishes, although I have difficulty imagining a more enthusiastic production than this one. The strong cast and technical aspects make this show worth seeing, as long as you know what to expect. It’s a show that pushes the envelope of crass subject matter about as far as it can be pushed, although oddly it doesn’t seem to pursue its more serious ambitions far enough. It’s an admirable effort from New Line, and although it’s not for all audiences,  if The Jerry Springer Show is your cup of tea, this show probably will be, too.

Cast of Jerry Springer The Opera Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg New Line Thetre

Cast of Jerry Springer The Opera
Photo by Jill Ritter Lindberg
New Line Thetre

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