Structured in three acts with an epilogue, Jerry Springer – The Opera takes place on Earth, in Purgatory and in Hell. The show begins with three sets of guests on infamous The Jerry Springer Show on a set by Derek McLane which recreates the television studio. The Warm-Up Man (Swenson) whips up the crowd (actors seated in the first rows of the audience) to a frenzy. To chants of “Jerry, Jerry, (Go, Jerry Go”) and a projection warning that the show “may contain adult themes or strong language. Viewers with a strong moral center may experience ethically compromising bursts of pleasure,” Jerry Springer (a glasses clad and suited Terrence Mann) arrives from the audience and tells us that today’s guests all have guilty secrets. The first guest is Dwight who is cheating on his fiancé Peaches with her best friend Zandra, as well as transwoman Tremont.
After the women all fight, the show cuts to witty parody commercials on monitors above the stage and a backstage moment between Jerry and his out-of-control Warm-Up Man. Jerry’s second guest is Montel who tells his girlfriend Andrea that he likes to dress as a baby and poop in his diapers. He is also cheating on her with Baby Jane, a woman who enjoys dressing up as a little girl. After the second set of parody advertisements, the Warm-Up Man attacks Jerry backstage and is fired which he doesn’t take lightly. Jerry’s final guests are Shawntel, a would-be stripper, and her bruiser of a husband Chucky. Her mother Irene arrives to criticize Shawntel after she demonstrates her pole dancing technique. When Chucky is revealed to be a Ku Klux Klan member, a team of tapping dancing Klansmen take the stage. At this point, the Warm-Up Man gives Montel a gun with which he accidentally shoots Jerry.
In Purgatory, Jerry positioned on a gurney meets damaged versions of all of his recent guests who have met unpleasant fates. The Warm-Up Man appears and turns out to be Satan. In order to save himself, Jerry agrees to do a special episode of his show in Hell where is given cue cards by Baby Jane that he must read. Apparently, Satan wants an apology for his expulsion from Heaven and the first guest is Jesus (who is played by Montel) who competes with him in a musical face-off. Adam and Eve (a reconstituted Chucky and Shawntel) appear next with a grievance against Jesus over the apple in Eden. The Virgin Mary appears (looking a great deal like Irene) and complains that she was abandoned by her son. God arrives singing the aria “It Ain’t Easy Being Me” along with the Angels Gabriel (Tremont) and Michael (Andrea). God and Satan fight over Jerry’s soul and he makes a series of pronouncements which become more and more honest. Jerry wakes up back in his original show and must deal with the fact that he has been shot. The show begins with the profane and ends with the sacred – something for everyone.
Whether the show is an opera or a musical is a moot point. However, Thomas’ sophisticated and intricate score includes baroque chorus, operatic arias, Broadway, pop and gospel. Throughout the show is the repeated theme song, “This Is My Jerry Springer Moment” which is heard at regular intervals. The singing honors go to Jill Paice (Baby Jane) and Tiffany Mann (Shawntel) who demonstrate show-stopping voices as well as Luke Grooms (God) with his resonant bass-baritone. Terrence Mann is authoritative and amusingly wry as Jerry Springer, while Swenson is sinister in the dual role of the Warm-Up Man and Satan. Beth Kirkpatrick, Florrie Bagel, and Sean Patrick Doyle fight like the best of them in the Dwight story. Justin Keyes is hilarious as Montel and equally sober in a loincloth as Jesus. Excellent support is given by Allen as both Irene and the Virgin Mary, while Kim Steele has her moment as Jerry’s inner voice, the Valkyrie.
Rando’s superb and elaborate production is enhanced by Chris Bailey’s witty choreography and Sarah Laux’s suitably trashy costumes for the low-rent guests. Jeff Croiter’s lighting design continually sets the mood for the various sections by the use of different colors, particularly purple, blue and later red for the hellish scenes. The projections by Olivia Sebesky for the parody ads are part of the fun. Greg Anthony Rassen’s orchestrations for the four piece band led by Michael Brennan make it sound like a great many more instruments. The sound design by Joshua D. Reid is particularly effective considering how close the audience is to the stage in the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater at the Pershing Square Signature Center where the audience sits on three sides of the thrust stage.
Jerry Springer – The Opera is not for opera purists nor is for people who are easily offended by four letter words and other bad language of which there is a multitude. However, its irreverence skewers social, religious and political hypocrisy. The New Group’s production directed by John Rando is one of the most exciting musical theater experiences to be currently obtained in New York. It actually seems more relevant in Trump America where this sort of thing is cable-fodder every night of the week. If you are a dedicated theatergoer, miss this show if you dare.
Jerry Springer – The Opera (extended through April 1, 2018)
The New Group
Romulus Linney Courtyard Theater, The Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W. 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.thenewgroup.org
Running time: two hours and 15 minutes with one intermission