It shouldn't really be a surprise that Jerry Springer: The Opera is selling out in its Cincinnati premiere (and one of the first productions mounted in the US following a successful UK run). After all, this is the city where Jerry (the man) served as Mayor and is still considered a "favorite son" by many. New Stage Collective has received tens of thousands of complaints (mostly from the members of conservative Christian groups) for staging the controversial show, and a protest was held on opening night. New Stage provides an incredibly solid and entertaining production of a somewhat unbalanced show.
Jerry Springer: The Opera is really two shows in one. Act one chronicles a "typical" broadcast of Jerry's talk show with its trailer trash guests, convoluted storylines and morally reprehensible topics. Acts two and three set the action in purgatory and hell following the host's murder on the set of his show back on Earth at the end of act one. Satan enlists Springer to oversee a debate between him and Jesus in an attempt to get an apology from the Son of Man for the devil's expulsion from heaven.
The score by Richard Thomas (music and lyrics) and Stewart Lee (lyrics) for the musical/opera features many gorgeous and soaring melodies in various musical styles, and there are a number of beautiful choral arrangements as well. The lyrics aren't as impressive, but are generally serviceable and show off some witty wordplay in line with the "unique" subject matter (i.e. song titles like "Chick with a Dick" and "Talk to the Hand"). Standout numbers incorporating both memorable tunes and first-rate lyrics include "I Just Wanna Dance" and "It Ain't Easy Being Me".
Unfortunately, the book for Jerry Springer: The Opera (also by Thomas and Lee) can't match the level of the praiseworthy score. At its best, the show is a smart satire and social commentary about the embarrassing moral bankruptcy of some Americans and the accompanying behavior they'll show on TV just to get their 15 minutes of fame. However, when the story switches to the realms of purgatory and hell, it becomes less focused and effective, even as it strives for more. As Jerry tries to mediate an apology between Jesus and Satan, there's a lack of dramatic integrity in its ridiculousness (even for a satire), and the plotline seems padded and plodding. The post-intermission portion of the show is meant to demonstrate some universal truths about humankind, but they're too vague and unsupported to make a sufficient impact.
So, does the show deserve all of the complaints and protests? Well, it certainly has its fair share of bad language and "adult situations," but really no more so than many cable shows or the Springer talk show itself for that matter. And though the depictions of Jesus and other Biblical figures that have inspired most of the controversy and attention do seem somewhat unnecessarily inflammatory, they so obviously mimic the human characters found in act one that it's hard to take them as being actual representations of the religious figures as opposed to metaphors for general good and evil.
New Stage Collective has made a name for itself for staging strong productions of new, edgy shows, so Jerry Springer: The Opera is a perfect piece for them. Director/choreographer Alan Patrick Kenny keeps it simple with a straightforward and fluid presentation, and evokes passionate performances from his cast of twenty-five. Video slide shows are effectively used to further comment on the sorry state of American culture and the corrupt morals of the celebrities we "worship." The fine costumes (George Sarofeen), set (Samantha Reno), and lighting (Thomas Robinson / Sara Watson) are all what they need to be, but never take away focus from the score and story. Michael P. Hamilton leads a talented eight-piece orchestra.
It's difficult to imagine a theater company of this size getting a better cast of singers together than for this show. The score demands strong and adept vocalistsand New Stage delivers. Though truly an ensemble piece, Beth Kirkpatrick (Shawntel) and Michael Shawn Starks (Warm Up Man / Satan) are standouts, along with Nick Rose in the non-singing role of Jerry Springer. Mr. Rose has all of the details of Springer's unique mannerisms down pat, which is especially necessary for a city that knows the subject so well.
Jerry Springer: The Opera misses the mark somewhat due to its uneven story and message, but deserves a listen at least for its ambitious score. New Stage Collective in Cincinnati provides a quite rewarding and accomplished production. Visit www.newstagecollective.com or call (513) 621-3700 for tickets and more information. The show continues through August 3, 2008.