For all its highbrow associations, there's a hell of a lot of lowbrow to opera, what with all the really dumb cases of mistaken identity, lurid psychotic breaks, incestuous couplings, and lovers' quarrels that end in brutal violence or surprisingly lengthy deaths from tuberculosis. Men who like to wear diapers and act like babies, women who dream of becoming strippers, and transgender pimps with hearts of gold would ultimately fit just as well into the world of opera as they do into the world of Jerry Springer. I guess that's kind of the point of this show.
Richard Thomas's Jerry Springer: The Opera, currently receiving its Off Broadway premiere at the Signature Theater complex courtesy of the New Group, reimagines The Jerry Springer Show (still in syndication! Who knew?) as something more Wagnerian than I'm sure Springer ever intended. As silly as it is sonically lush, the production is engaging, brisk and light, and in the second act even gently moving under the typically deft, never-too-self-important direction of John Rando. The cast is talented and interesting, Terence Mann is hilariously deadpan as Springer, and Will Swenson, who plays jerks very well, is notably well-cast as Satan, the supreme jerk among all jerks. The ensemble, too, is strong to a one, which is good, since this is very much an ensemble piece. I somehow expected Jerry and Satan to have much meatier roles, but there's a lot going on that does not always involve either one of them. In brief, and perhaps somewhat snobbishly, I would happily sit through this production again, whereas the thought of watching a few minutes of the real Jerry Springer Show makes the comparable thought of rolling around naked in ground glass just a titch more inviting.
The only issue I have with Jerry Springer: The Opera, really, is that for its groovy conceit--opera Jerry gets shot and, in purgatory, learns that Jesus, Mary, God and Satan are all as whiny, crazy, argumentative and flawed as his television guests are--there's ultimatlely not much more to it. Which is, I suppose, just fine: sometimes a good cigar is just a good cigar, a well-performed opera is just a well-performed opera, and a crossdressing sex-addicted trucker who likes to be spanked is just a crossdressing sex-addicted trucker who likes to be spanked.
Maybe, more specifically, it's the marketing for this particular production that doesn't fully jibe for me. The New Group's web-page copy insists that Jerry Springer: The Opera is "deeply in tune with the chaos and unrestrained id of our times," and that may be the case, but frankly, the opera seems postively quaint considering how low the bar has fallen and how much of what used to raise eyebrows on Springer has within mere decades become just another astoundingly sad news day. There's nothing at all wrong with the production. It's just kind of a bummer to realize how much of its content is rooted in a more innocent time--a time when the very basest of human behavior was relatively contained to a few afternoon talk shows. How newly foreign it is to realize that Jerry Springer: The Opera, so sweet and ultimately tame, actually caused enough of an uproar to spark boycotts that made the national news.
Much more than a nostalgia trip, Jerry Springer: The Opera nevertheless harkens back to a recently bygone era of slow news days. Maybe we'll get back to that point someday; in the meantime, I guess, we'll always have JERRY! JERRY! JERRRR-Y!!