Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s work of magisterial melodiousness has at last arrived for its New York premiere at Carnegie Hall (where it plays its second and final performance tonight) on a wave of question marks. Can notoriously puritanical Americans handle it? Is it raucously risqué enough to have been worth the wait? Will it get the Broadway run that will finally prove the Main Stem has escaped from the Dark Ages? In order: yes; no; if you accept the premise (which is hardly a given), it’s too early to tell.
Judging by this expertly appointed and (mostly) exquisitely performed concert production, which has been directed by Jason Moore and is conducted by Stephen Oremus, Americans aren’t the ones on the lower end of this particular bell curve. Jerry Springer: The Opera may be filled with trailer-trash talk and more cursing than a David Mamet festival, but offends most because of its inoffensiveness.
Originally an Edinburgh Festival Fringe hit based on the infamous American TV show, the show eventually moved to London and enjoyed a healthy run, a shelf of awards, and a TV broadcast that inspired waves of protest (mostly, one suspects, from people who couldn’t be bothered to watch it). The primary sticking point: the second-act portrayal of Jesus as a “partly gay” expletive excreter and the Virgin Mary as an unwed teenage mother. This was enough to scrap plans for a Broadway run, yet drum up enough publicity to keep people talking for years.
Now that the talk has subsided and we’re actually confronted with the show, the only question of note is: This is it? What was decried as blasphemous is, at most, a chipped-tooth satire of our misplaced cultural values, which only uses its wall-to-wall, brick-splitting vocals to convey a vague sense of the inherent tragedy of our lower societal tiers.
What the English might not have realized that most Americans (or at least those likely to attend this production) instinctively do is that The Jerry Springer Show is a parody of itself. A somber host deadpanning his way through fist fights and shouting matches about subjects like “Pregnant by a Transsexual” and “I Refuse to Wear Clothes”? Some things can only be taken so seriously. So when the stage version takes in topics like a man in love with two women and one transvestite, a man who attains sexual arousal from wearing a diaper, or a woman who longs to pole dance against the wishes of her Ku Klux Klan man, it makes about as many waves as a toy boat.
Screaming from the onstage audience, contretemps in the seats, hair-pulling, and of course the ubiquitous swearing are pretty tame for us, not least because recent theatrical hits like Avenue Q and Spring Awakening have already broken barriers like these. (This show’s tap-dancing KKK members also don’t have quite the comic spark that The Producers’s show tune-loving Nazis did once upon a time.) The second act attempts profundity, when the devil forces a mortally wounded Jerry to put on a version of his show in Hell. But it is, alas, the same points written in a different color ink, as if to prove that immortals can be just as foolish as humans. But didn’t the Greeks understand and dramatize this a few thousand years ago?
The music is the show’s richest distinguishing feature, loaded with arias, duets, chorales, and pulsating ensembles of borderline Wagnerian weight that help the show truly justify its title. During some of the more animated of the interior monologues and slapfights, it even seems as though only this heavyweight music, as performed by singers as solid as these, will suffice in capturing the proper over-the-top spirit of the moment.
Broadway vets like Linda Balgord, Emily Skinner, and Max von Essen give dynamic readings of a series of increasingly bizarre roles, while the opera singers who round out the cast (especially the stunning Luke Grooms as a sexually confused man and, uh, God) help aurally elevate the evening to the vicinity of La Scala. David Bedella, recreating the roles he originated of Jerry’s warm-up man and the Warm-Up Man Downstairs, is a magnificent talent and the show’s human fusion-generator core: He’s energetic, buoyantly comedic, and a monstrous singer in his own right, plowing through an astonishing array of exhausting material with effortless-looking ease. That he not only holds his own but triumphs over Grooms in a second-act sing-off (which uses the F-word several dozen times in succession), is its own kind of minor miracle.
Less heavenly is Harvey Keitel as Jerry himself. Keitel’s cracked-pebble voice and furrowed-brow intensity have made him an opposing figure in many films, but here suggest a man who lives in constant opposition to the joke, not someone who quietly enables it. When the tables are turned on him in the second act, it’s impossible to believe that Keitel is flustered enough to fail at his mission. He’s just too strong to go weak.
Jerry Springer: The Opera, on the other hand, is too weak to go strong, its gorgeous music never fully supporting an evening never as funny or as insulting as it wants to be. It ultimately plays much like the deceptively safe, boxed-in entertainment that the real Springer’s TV series has always been. On the bright side, if a full-scale transfer doesn’t result from this concert, Springer can always book the stars for a very special episode called “Opera Singers Gone Wild.” If only the show onstage gave them - or us - something to go wild about.
Jerry Springer: The Opera in Concert