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Chicago by John Olson

Jerry Springer The Opera
Bailiwick Repertory

Also see John's review of Pulp

Jerry Springer - The Opera
Brian Simmons and Jeremy Rill
The title alone says it all, reveling in the obvious incongruity between the presumably lowest of pop entertainment and the highest of art forms. You don't have to get far into act one, in which a hypothetical episode of the "Jerry Springer" TV show is set to music, that you realize the idea of Springer's low-life guests and audience members singing in the style of contemporary opera isn't as absurd as it sounds. As much as we may distance ourselves from the transvestite-loving philanderer, adult-baby diaper lover and erotic dancer wannabe portrayed here, they have passions of operatic proportion. When you get beyond their out-of-the box sexual desires, you find some universal themes of loneliness, jealously and insecurity that have served writers of opera for some time.

None of this is to say that Jerry Springer is likely to end up on the season calendar of Chicago's Lyric Opera anytime this century. Though the scatology, profanity and crudity of the real-life Springer show has been with us for a while, there's something about setting it in rhyme and music that ups the shock value and would have the typical opera-goer heading for Lake Forest faster than you can say any of the one-syllable words sung with some frequency in the piece. The first act doesn't seem to have any more of an agenda than to keep us gasping in shock at the audacity of the British writers (Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee) who put this together, until the act closes with the apparent shooting death of Springer by one of his guests.

In acts two and three, things get a bit philosophical. Springer wakes up in Purgatory, surrounded by ghosts of his guests and he's challenged by the consequences of his actions in giving an audience their deepest secrets and perversions. He's commanded by the Devil to host a special episode of his show from Hell, in which the guests include not only the Devil himself, but Jesus Christ, Adam and Eve, Mary and the ultimate surprise guest, the Almighty himself. The eternal struggle between good and evil (even within ourselves), the apparent harshness of God's wrath ("it was just a little apple," Eve whines) and the tendency of humans to blame God or each other for their own mistakes are all debated. To our continued surprise, the gross-out fest that is the first act gives way to a reflection that, without losing any of its edginess or aggressively bad taste, becomes a convincing argument that "The Jerry Springer Show" provides insights into timeless conflicts of humanity.

If that seems an unlikely conclusion, is it any unlikelier than the thought that this acclaimed hit from London's National Theater would have its American premiere not on Broadway as had been announced for some time, but at Chicago's scrappy non-Equity Bailiwick Repertory? Bailiwick had been known for years for its gay-themed shows, frequently featuring ample amounts of profitable male nudity, but their Mainstage has in recent years been the venue of some successful and critically acclaimed mountings of musicals. Still, a common denominator has frequently been the company's attention to the stories of outsiders, whether burlesque performers, (Gypsy), Jews in the post-Civil War south (Parade), or political dissidents and transvestites (Kiss of the Spider Woman), so the outcasts of Mr. Springer's talk show are kin to the heroes of those more traditional musicals.

Even the success of Bailiwick's musicals over the past few seasons doesn't prepare one for the knockout that is this production. The cast of 29 and eight-piece band under the baton and musical direction of Gary Powell handle with complete professionalism the considerable demands of the mostly sung-through score that ranges from genres including pop and classical to contemporary opera and sacred music. They sing from the stage and frequently from the house, surprising us and enveloping us in the action. They're onstage nearly nonstop, except when they're changing costumes (designed by Jeff Jones) at the speed of light. Director David Zak and company keep the energy at a manic level throughout, and they still have the stamina for dancing the big numbers (such as a tap dance done by hooded Klansmen) choreographed by Brenda Didier. In this show, the ensemble is really the lead.

None of this is to take anything away from Zak's principals, most of whom perform with the ensemble as well. These featured players handle their "out-there" material without fear. Brian Simmons, in dyed blond hair, looks enough like Springer and has an ironic, exasperated air matching that of the real-life host. As the saying goes, though, the devil has all the lines, and Simmons is outshined by the power-voiced Jeremy Rill in the dual role of Satan and Springer's smarmy warm-up man. Joe Tokarz, as the three-timing husband Dwight and as God, has a voice that could rule the heavens. Ryan Lanning plays Dwight's transvestite lover Tremont, selling his "Talk to the Hand" number so well it builds momentum for the first act, just as we might otherwise be getting used to the show's shock value. Kate Garassino and John B. Leen are a riot as a stripper and her redneck/KKK-member husband as well as a puzzled Adam and Eve. Most fearless of all, though, must be Jeffrey A. Bouthiette, who must sing in a diaper about the joys of soiling himself. Compared to him, his girlfriend Baby Jane is a real charmer and is impressively sung by Jennifer T. Grubb.

The challenges of Bailiwick's space there seem to be no wings to speak of, making it hard to do much with scenery changes beyond reshuffling of flats are totally forgotten thanks to Zak's clever use of the stage and house, and the imaginative lighting design of Jared Moore, which literally takes us to Hell and back. Ryan Trupp's set is a realistic re-creation of the real TV set, and it comes apart at the seams for the sequence in Hell. Bailiwick's space may be just right for this show - it's a black box about the size of a TV studio - and though they certainly lack the resources of something like the London National, there's no scaled-down feeling here, at least not to one who hasn't seen the original production.

At one point, Springer berates his audience for its desire to look for easy and definitive answers to major life questions, telling them "Nothing is wrong and nothing is right." There are those who will feel the excesses of this piece are wrong, but those who have been intrigued by reports of the London production and have been anxious to see it in the U.S. ought to make their way to Chicago to check out this production. After all, this is the home of the real-life TV show and visitors might be able to catch it on the same trip.

Jerry Springer The Opera will be performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3:30 p.m. through August 19, 2007, with additional performances on Wednesdays June 20 and 27 at 7:30 p.m. For tickets and reservations call 773-883-1090 or visit www.bailiwick.org.


Photo: Chris Costentino

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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