Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Jerry Springer The Opera
Also see Richard's review of The Winslow Boy
But look a little deeper and you'll find something enduringly beautiful and simple also running through, in structure and style. Because there may be a river leading back to Thornton Wilder's Our Town underneath it all.
I don't think director/producer Scott Miller and his excellent ensemble are forcibly imposing that deeper level of meaning on the workI'm pretty sure it was there all along, in the musical by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee. But in Miller's hands, every truly outrageous moment is tempered by genuine pathos. The original production won the Olivier Award for best new musical of 2006 in London.
And among all its bizarre tales of love-gone-wrong are two particular female victims, buffeted by the manifold desires of life. Like young Emily Webb in Grover's Corners, they are simply overwhelmed by life, as presented in the play. And later (like Emily) both girls will end up among the deadthough not on a peaceful hillside.
Keith Thompson is excellent as the title character, a seemingly helpful, down-to-earth Narrator, giving off every appearance of gentle good will. He 'facilitates' a sort of intervention for a wandering lover (the hilarious Zachary Allen Farmer), and acts surprised when another guest (played by the splendid Marshall Jennings) comes up with his own wild form of self-expression after that.
But each of these outrageous, comic-opera males has a wonderful young woman in tow, following him out into the glare of the stage lights, invariably to be humiliated. First is Taylor Pietz and then Christina Rios as young ladies in a world gone horribly (but not inaccurately) wrong. The quiet desperation of each, steamrollered by TV's best-known freak show, opens up a hypnotic dimension of modern tragedy on the stage. And since their silent pain is front-loaded in this evening, it seems to echo through and heighten every other moment of grief and yearning yet to come, right alongside the hundred grizzly laughs and shocks in store.
Skip ahead past intermission, and Ms. Pietz returns as a strange, guiding angel in the afterlife. But, still, both here and hereafter, it seems that every one of us is eager to play the fool for the camera, in a misguided attempt to be understood by a human race that's not very bright to begin with. Both she and Ms. Rios are touching and sing beautifully, in a whole ensemble that's kept to a very high vocal and theatrical standard.
Matt Pentecost (thrilling as Clyde Barrow in New Line's recent Bonnie & Clyde) is delightfully polished and driven as Springer's warm-up guy, turning a stumbling bunch of tourists into a highly focused chorus of small town disapproval in very short order. Later he'll give Springer the challenge of his afterlife: mending the relationship between God and the devil.
Maybe that last bit sounds like something straight out of "Saturday Night Live." But the music in the Underworld is deliciously informed by Phillip Glass, raising events there to funny, epic heights. There, too, the New Line ensemble turns every moment to goldor (intentionally) at least to giltusing its tremendous resources of brains and talent.
Elsewhere, Anna Skidis sings beautifully to a stripper's pole, and Lindsey Jones is her condemning mother (and later the Virgin Mary), adding power and humor. Luke Steingruby lends brilliance as a ferocious she-male; and Ryan Foizey leads a chorus of tap-dancing Klansmen as Ms. Skidis' white-trash boyfriend, full of bluster and bravado.
But in the process, any prospect of help from the life lessons and pleasant minutia of Grover's Corners (and the loving acquiescence of every troubled soul in that mythical hamlet) is crushed in a headlong stampede for the miraculous, justifying power of television. As telling as the perversity and pain it reveals is the chorus' numb recitation of Mr. Springer's sponsors: selling guns and Viagra and Prozac and insurance and Jesus to the viewers he's so worked so hard to knock off-balance right before each commercial break.
John Waters would be proud. So would Thornton Wilder.
Through March 28, 2015, at the Washington University South Campus, 6501 Clayton Road (across from Schnucks and the Esquire Theatre, in the former CBC high school). For more information visit www.newlinetheatre.com.
The New Line Band
The Artistic Staff
Photo: Jill Ritter Lindberg