Jerry Springer the Opera has been Extended thru April 1, with Matt McGrath taking over the role of Jerry Springer on March 13. Below is original review published on February 22.
By Brian Scott Lipton
The big questions on most people’s minds upon hearing that the celebrated New Group is finally offering the first New York commercial mounting to the 2002 musical Jerry Springer: The Opera are likely “why?” and “why now?” Both are answered, perhaps to different degrees of satisfaction, in John Rando’s spirited and exceedingly well-cast production of the Richard Thomas-Stewart Lee tuner now at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
To begin, not only is Springer’s infamous talk show still on the airwaves after 27 years, but the American quest for 15 minutes of fame — no matter the personal or professional cost — has scarcely diminished in the past 15 years. So, as much as we’re encouraged to laugh or jeer at someone like the overweight Dwight (a sensational Luke Grooms), who is juggling three lovers at once, we also must remember that he and his ilk are still more than willing to tell all on TV. Indeed, you might even be reading this review while watching “Celebrity Big Brother,” “The Bachelor” or one of the countless “reality” shows featuring the Kardashian-Jenner clan.
Moreover, what motivates most of the people who are hosted by Springer (a beautifully cast Terrence Mann) – a one-time political advisor to Robert Kennedy and former mayor of Cincinnati – is their need for a voice, from Dwight’s sassy transvestite lover Tremont (an excellent Sean Patrick Doyle) to the diaper-wearing Montel (a committed Justin Keyes) and dear pal Baby Jane (a sublime Jill Paice). Most poignant of all is Shawntel (the amazing Tiffany Mann), a large African-American woman who wants to be a pole dancer and is unaware that her redneck husband Chucky (the very fine Nathaniel Hackmann) is secretly a member of the KKK. (Her stunning solo, “I Just Want to Dance,” is the show’s musical highlight.)
Also in need of a voice, not to mention a good therapist, is Jerry’s somewhat maniacal, desperately lonely warm-up man (a frighteningly convincing Will Swenson), who takes a lot more pride in his job than his boss does. And, as Mann makes clear in his beautifully calibrated performance, even if Springer himself isn’t 100 percent sure how his life has taken such a sharp turn, the undeniable truth is that he’s just as addicted to fame as his less wealthy guests. For these reasons, the show’s first half works both as social commentary and guilty pleasure — provided, of course, you can stand the constant, almost unrelenting profanity.
However, its second act wants to be much more than mere fun: it aims for moral complexity, yet falls short of its goal. A lengthy dream sequence finds Jerry battling for his immortal life against Satan (Swenson, bedecked in red, oozing nastiness, and seemingly auditioning for “Damn Yankees”), who wants Springer to get him an apology from Jesus (Keyes) and God (Grooms, who soars on the gorgeous “It Ain’t Easy Being Me.”).
The conceit is clever, but Thomas and Lee can’t quite make it fully come to life effectively, and the authors’ message feels muddled. Worse yet, the necessary stakes aren’t really there; we know the real Springer is alive, so whatever happens to his stage alter-ego feels a bit secondary. Indeed, my biggest issue with the show is that it’s not so much a cautionary tale but one more paltry excuse by the British to try to show their cultural and intellectual superiority over Americans.
Still, if there is one overriding theme to “Jerry Springer: The Opera,” it’s that everyone deserves a second chance. And since only a handful of New Yorkers saw this show live (in a celebrated one-night performance in 2008 at Carnegie Hall), it’s only fitting that it’s being given its own second chance to display its singular strengths, especially by such a talented group of people.
Photos: Monique Carboni
Jerry Springer: The Opera continues at the Pershing Square Signature Center (420 West 42nd Street) through March 11.
Visit www.thenewgroup.org for tickets.