Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Jerry Springer: The Opera

[spoilers throughout]

Yes, curse words sung operatically by incredibly talented people are startlingly funny. And arguments about who's cheating on who, complete with hair-pulling, are also great fun presented operatically. But they have diminishing returns, and, although I completely was completely enjoying the first act of Jerry Springer: The Opera, I began to wonder if it goes anywhere.

It does: it goes to purgatory, complete with biblical characters (e.g., Satan, Adam, Eve, Jesus). And guess what? They have as many issues as the humans in Act I and behave as badly. And, yes, it's a blast.

I suspect the show wants to provide social commentary, and perhaps it did when it was first written. Now, it mostly provides entertainment--first-class, top-notch, occasionally side-splitting entertainment. And much of the music is beautiful, to boot.

Richard Thomas (music, book, and lyrics) and Stewart Lee (book and lyrics) could not ask for a better production than the one currently being presented by the New Group. John Rando directs the craziness of the show with perfect pacing and mood, and Chris Bailey's choreography is wonderfully character-specific and wonderfully wonderful.

And the cast is full of amazingly talented people who can sing magnificently, act well, and move--and who also have prodigious amounts of energy. They are Jennifer Allen, Florrie Bagel, Brandon Contreras (remarkably poised and effective subbing in two challenging roles), Sean Patrick Doyle, Brad Greer, Luke Grooms, Nathaniel Hackmann, Billy Hepfinger, Beth Kirkpatrick, Elizabeth Loyacano, Terence Mann (a convincingly glib Jerry Springer), Tiffany Mann, Jill Paice, Kim Steele, Will Swenson (a sexy, commanding Satan), and Nichole Turner.

The design components are also top-of-the-line, appropriate, and funny. Scenic design is by Derek McLane; costume design is by Sarah Laux; and lighting design by Jeff Croiter.

One of the strengths of this fabulous production is the small theater in which it is currently appearing. I would imagine that Jerry Springer: The Opera will move to Broadway and will still be marvelous. However, if you can see it in its current incarnation, do so. The show happens all around the audience, and the intimacy is one of its major charms.

Wendy Caster
(press ticket; 4th row on the aisle; shook "Jerry Springer's" hand)

Friday, February 23, 2018

Jerry Springer: The Opera

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!!

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Cottagers and Indians (Toronto)

After becoming a permanent resident last year, considering how I can now participate in Truth and Reconciliation with Canada's indigenous peoples is important to me. When I noticed that Cottagers and Indians had replaced another production in Tarragon's 17/18 season, I knew I needed to see it and see it with the right person sitting next to me, someone who also cared about how art can seriously contribute to these conversations.

Drew Hayden Taylor's two-hander tells both sides of an argument on Starling Lake, an area of Northern Ontario now popular with Toronto cottagers but home to the nearby reserve's inhabitants for much longer. The two sides of the stage house each side of the feud: Arthur Copper (Herbie Barnes) sits in his canoe on the lake on stage right, and Maureen Poole (Tracey Hoyt) lounges on the deck of her cottage on stage left. They speak to the audience and each other, interjecting to tell together of their feud over the lake's true purpose--to provide growing grounds for the wild rice or manoomin that feeds Copper and his people or to remain empty and free for the cottagers' boating, swimming, and property values.

Drew Hayden Taylor headshot. Crossed arms and cartoon purple tree in front of him.

I recognized the space from the moment I walked in, as I have been to visit enough Canadian cottages to know what they look like. But I too have helped plant a healing canoe garden, and recognized the significance of the canoe arranged on stage right for Arthur Copper. The stage was set and I knew what conflict I had come to witness--one that I hear about in the news and at work as we discuss reconciliation.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Green Room 42 (Venue Review)

A year ago, a new cabaret space opened at the Yotel on 42nd Street and 10th Avenue (entrance on 10th): The Green Room 42. My first foray there was on February 14th, its first anniversary, for an evening of love and love-ish songs by the fabulous Lillias White. It's a nice room, comfortable, with tables not too-too squished together.

And here's the thing: no cover charge. Ever. And reasonable prices. Its not perfect; the sound at the Lillias White performance could certainly have been better. But it's a financially accessible cabaret in Manhattan!

Photo: Madrid Kuser

I realize that I'm a tad late to this party; after all, The Green Room 42 opened a year ago. But, better late than never (I made that up). For a list of upcoming shows, click here.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

Dark Heart (Toronto)

Instead of going to a Superbowl party on Sunday night, I went to the theatre. Honestly, I forgot to put the game on my calendar and when it came down to switching my tickets for Dark Heart or watching the NFL, there was no turning back--Genevieve Adam's new play promised werewolves.

Dark Heart invites its audience at the Assembly Theatre to enter a forest back in 1661 when this land was not yet called Canada. Amable Bilodeau (Michael Iliadis), a green soldier just arrived in New France, gets himself thrown in the middle of marital drama, conflict between the settlers and the native tribes, and supernatural danger when he pulls Metis trader Toussaint Langlois (Garret C. Smith) out of the river.

Three stories begin to weave together, with Toussaint and Amable at the core. Nobleman Seigneur Louis de Lamonthe (Paul Rivers) put his wife Madeleine (Audrey Clairman) into the asylum at the local hospital, not for madness but punishment for cheating on him with a member of the local tribe. But after a few days, Sister Marie St. Bonadventure (Brianne Tucker) assisted Madeline in escaping. Dr. Joseph Sarrazin (John Fitzgerald Jay) and Amable go off to find and protect Madeleine, while Louis blackmails Toussaint into tracking his wife--until all come together in the woods where the loups-garous or werewolf is said to lurk.

The program says that Amable is the protagonist of the play, but I found the women he encountered in New France more compelling. Genevieve Adam wrote one of the most confusing, yet exciting characters for herself in the bone-setter or Eleonore "Lizzie" Ramezy. She seduced both of the male leads in the play, as the true puppet-master. As the only settler born and raised in New France, she seems to hold the most knowledge about how to survive, practically and culturally, amongst all the conflicts whirling around her. I suppose that is the trick of the play--though the men believe they are in charge, it was truly the women like Eleonore pulling the strings.

Monday, February 05, 2018

Calpurnia (Toronto)

I wish I could tell you all to go see Nightwood Theatre and Sulong Theatre's Calpurnia... but the rest of its run sold out after the first week. So instead, I'm going to tell you how this 90-minute family comedy, set around another dinner party, challenged my beliefs about allyship, racism, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Julie (Meghan Swaby) has hit a wall in writing her screenplay, the untold story of the Finch family's maid Calpurnia in To Kill a Mockingbird. As she goes to great lengths to unlock this character's voice, she unsettles and unravels the racial politics within her own house--most importantly, the relationship between her upper class Jamaican-Canadian family and their Filipino housekeeper, Precy (Carolyn Fe).

I have missed going to Buddies in Bad Times! Toronto's LGBTQIA+ theatre felt so much more open than other theatre houses in Toronto. Walking in, I didn't recognize the same faces in the audience. Which meant it wasn't just members of the theatre community attending, but members of so many other communities, too. I also wasn't the only one with crazy-colored hair. Best of all: this rainbow of an audience made up the background for every scene in Calpurnia. Due to the profile staging, I got to watch the other half of the audience react to each uncomfortable moment.

Sunday, February 04, 2018

A New Brain (Brooklyn)

While watching the Gallery Players' highly entertaining production of William Finn's odd but engaging musical, A New Brain, I found my own old brain full of questions. First, about A New Brain itself:

Jesse Manocherian, Justin Phillips
Photo: Alice Teeple

  • What makes a musical worth writing?
  • How does a writer decide what specifically to musicalize?
  • Is Finn's leaning toward silly rhymes a form of brilliance, audacity, or laziness?
  • How do you know when to end a musical?
  • What does a song need to offer in order to be worth keeping in a show?
  • What is Finn really about as a writer?