Anti-opera review: ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’
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“Jerry Springer: The Opera,” which won the 2004 Olivier Award in London for best new musical and which opened Saturday night at the Chance Theater in Anaheim Hills, is hardly an opera, but neither is it a musical. It is something new. It is a religious operetta posing as anti-opera, silly words and music working hand in hand in pseudo-sacrilege.
A parody of a panoply of biblical figures, the show is clearly blasphemous. But it does not commit blasphemy. There is a difference. Springerian salvation is not out of the question.
Even so, everywhere it goes, this Jerry Springer satire generates disapproval from religious groups. To protest its Southern California premiere, two women somberly stood in lonely prayer by the side of East La Palma Avenue as Saturday night traffic whizzed by. The daring, unprepossessing, small theater is in an industrial strip mall next to a BMW repair shop.
The authors of the potty-mouthed book and lyrics, Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas (who was also composer of the occasionally inventive score and is also librettist for the opera ‘Anna Nicole’), gleefully (and “Glee”-fully, what with all-American choristers whooping it up) wallow in puerile profanity. But they do not create truly profane theater. Again there is a difference.
A catechism of obscenities and four-letter-word patter songs provides a facade of filth, but nothing is actually revealed. Beneath a sullied scatological surface lies a curious prudishness.
Nothing about this operetta — which is through-composed (with only Jerry Springer as a spoken role) and which includes clever, convoluted burlesques of opera and Broadway — is quite what it seems.
And little about the modest Chance Theater is modest. Its dazzling production of “Jerry Springer,” directed by Trevor Biship, requires more than 50 credits in the program book. That is more than half the house’s capacity. But the intimate theater, with the audience on three sides, has the feel of Springer’s television studio.
Such goings on! Dwight (Jovani McCleary) is cheating on Peaches (Erika C. Miller) with Zandra (Laura M. Hathaway) and the transsexual Tremont (Matthew Ballestero). Montel (Jared Pugh) wears diapers and cheats on Andrea (Katie Kitani) with Baby Jane (Miller). Chucky (Kyle Cooper) is in the Ku Klux Klan and his wife, Shawntel (Jessie Withers), exposes her inner stripper.
A chorus of Springer’s fervid fans joins us as our seatmates, egging everyone on. Jonathan (David Laffey) is warm-up man with an edge. Steve (David McCormick) deals with security, which means breaking up fighting female guests.
All of this is shown as good, clean fun with dirty words. Crude Americans are the putative target, but this is pure British parody in a tradition from Gilbert and Sullivan to Monty Python.
Things then get out of hand.
The second half is surrealistic. In a state of delirium, Jerry, who in the best of times has an issue with his inner Valkyries, finds himself hosting his show in hell. Jonathan has become the devil, and his lunatic guests have now morphed into God, Jesus, Adam and Eve. This is where the show has gotten into trouble. But fantasies are fantasies. People have dreams they can’t control. Jerry finds his soul. “Jerry Eleison” is sung. It’s a cheap revelation, but what do you expect? He’s Jerry Springer, and this is operetta. Music here offers no transformation, merely more excuses for making merry with a chorus line.
But what an irresistible chorus line that is. And what fun this company has making merry.
You will know if this is a show for you. If it is, then there is a bit of everything. The singing is uneven, but some of it is splendid, and everyone is funny. A remarkable sense of ensemble that makes even the most scurrilous bits of “Jerry Springer” oddly lovable. Kelly Todd’s choreography is exhilarating.
For all its naughtiness, “Jerry Springer” is not untouched by schmaltz. Fetishists, after all, are deep down just like us (or at least the British). Jerry is misunderstood. And so, maybe, are the show’s creators with their make-believe blasphemy.
When he saw the show, Jerry Springer is reported to have said, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Maybe because a real-life television host is not as besotted with the Bible as you would have to be to invent the genre of religious operetta.
— Mark Swed
‘Jerry Springer: The Opera.’ Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills. Through August 7. (714) 777-3033 or www.chancetheater.com.