Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Jerry Springer-The Opera

A Good Idea Taken Too Far

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

In the world of tabloid talk shows, few are more famous, or infamous, than "The Jerry Springer Show". A place where relationships, questions of sexual identity, politics and other issues of the day are regularly discussed, dissected and bandied about. Accompanied at times by insults, accusations and the occasional flying fist or tossed chair. This is the atmosphere recreated in Jerry Springer - The Opera. The work first seen in London in 2003, and now making its Off-Broadway debut with The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The show's creators, Stewart Lee & Richard Thomas, were clearly aiming for parody in their efforts, while also tucking in a few moral messages. But the end product goes so far over the top, it feels more like a wasted opportunity.

This is a shame, especially since things start off so wonderfully. The first act offering a hilarious take-off on the Springer show, complete with some folks in the "studio audience" who are more than ready to let loose with insults and heckles. Egged on by a somewhat demented Warm-Up Man, (brilliantly played to hilt by Will Swenson), this group serves as a sort of Greek chorus for what is to follow. Soon after, we meet Mr. Springer (Terrance Mann) himself. The character seen here as a quiet, unassuming fellow. His attitude a marked contrast to the continual frenzy going on around him.

Among Jerry’s guests are a man with several different paramours, a fellow with a diaper fetish, and a woman who wants to be a professional pole dancer. Each of these people, as well as their loved ones, also having other hidden secrets in their lives. All of which are brought out in a way to cause maximum humiliation for them, and maximum enjoyment for the aforementioned studio audience. Jerry trying his best to stay above the fray by quietly asking some leading questions, and then letting Steve (Billy Hepfinger), his head of security, run interference when things get out of hand. As they inevitably do.

L-R: Terrence Mann, Billy Hepfinger, Beth Kirkpatrick, Florrie Bagel, Luke Grooms, Sean Patrick Doyle in “Jerry Springer – The Opera,” a production from The New Group, in a limited Off-Broadway engagement at The Pershing Square Signature Center Jan 23 – Mar 11, 2018. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni / www.thenewgroup.org

The problem with all this, however, is one of immense overkill. Each of the above scenarios following the same pattern. Especially with the supposed "innocents", who turn out to be just as brazen and crude as those initially spilling their secrets. Using one or two  similar instances as a set-up for what follows is fine. But by the third such example, things start becoming rather tedious. A feeling that never fully goes away from that point on.

Act Two starts with Jerry finding himself in Hell. His only chance of salvation being to successfully mediate an extremely long-running dispute between Satan (Swenson), Jesus (Justin Keyes), Adam (Nathaniel Hackmann), Eve (Tiffany Mann), Mary (Jennifer Allen), and God (Luke Grooms). It's certainly an idea with plenty of potential. Unfortunately, the show's creators seem to be more fixated on having religious figures continually swearing at each other, rather than trying to find anything deeper on which to focus.

Despite the various problems, there are times when the musical is able to touch on some very important issues. Such as when a group of Jerry's hardcore followers serenade him with the song "We Eat, Excrete and Watch TV". Their main purpose in life being to live vicariously by watching other people's misery. The irony here of course, is that these fans, who think Jerry's guests are basically nothing but a bunch of losers, are themselves the biggest losers of them all.

Another good moment occurs when Jerry finally loses his patience and tells those around him that there are certain things on which they never will agree. A situation which, he notes, is not necessarily a bad thing. An important sentiment, especially in these days of polarizing opinions; where the idea of compromise and bi-partisanship have become dirty words to so many. Sadly, too many of these points are simply tossed into the mix haphazardly, and are never given a chance to grow to fruition.

Although Springer may be a fascinating individual - he was the Mayor of Cincinnati and a campaign advisor to Robert Kennedy, both points mentioned in the show - we never get the chance to know the character as a real person. Mann's portrayal somewhat lacking in depth or passion, at least until the very end. Another key point occurs when Jerry mentions how the purpose of his show is to give a voice to people who have no voice. Admirable to be sure, but too often he comes off as either an enabler or someone who has let things get out of his control. He often providing "gotcha" moments to embarrass his guests, titillate his audiences and boost ratings, rather than actually trying to help those who come on his show deal with their various issues.

The music by Mr. Thomas is enjoyable, though the way the songs are presented cause the lyrics to be drowned out more than once. Especially in the beginning of the show. As for said lyrics, using swear words extensively only succeeds in reducing their shock value. Cutting down on the total somewhat would have made those that remain far more effective.

Swenson is the clear standout among the cast. The actor hitting it out of the park "Backstage Family". Where, as the Warm-Up Man, he rhapsodizes on his bromance with Jerry. Mann, at the same time, offering a contrasting viewpoint to Warm-Up Man's interpretation.

L-R: Will Swenson, Terrence Mann in “Jerry Springer – The Opera,” a production from The New Group, in a limited Off-Broadway engagement at The Pershing Square Signature Center Jan 23 –  April 1, 2018. PHOTO CREDIT: Monique Carboni / www.thenewgroup.org

The entire company - other than Mann, as discussed above - throws themselves into their roles with extreme enthusiasm. Their actions helping to make up for the various lack of substance in many of the selfsame characters. High marks also go to director John Rando and choreographer Chris Bailey for making full use of venue playing space. Thus putting the characters at times right next to the audience. Also quite good is Derek McLane's set. Especially in Act One where he recreates the studio where the Jerry Springer show is taped.

Jerry Springer - The Opera starts out with the potential to be something really amazing, but tries way too hard to be outrageous without ever settling on a clear through line for the story. Either focusing more on Jerry himself, or trimming a good portion of Act One would have been a good place to start. As it stands now, what's presented on stage feels like a tired imitation, rather than anything fresh or new.

Featuring: Billy Hepfinger (Steve), Will Swenson (Warm-Up Man/Satan), Terrence Mann (Jerry Springer), Luke Grooms (Dwight/God), Florrie Bagel (Peaches/Ensemble), Beth Kirkpatrick (Zandra/Ensemble), Elizabeth Loyacano (Valkyrie/Andrea/Angel Michael), Kim Steele (Valkyrie/Backing Jerry/Ensemble), Sean Patrick Doyle (Tremont/Angel Gabriel), Justin Keyes (Montel/Jesus), Jill Paice (Baby Jane), Tiffany Mann (Shawntel/Eve), Nathaniel Hackmann (Chucky/Adam), Jennifer Allen (Irene/Mary), Brandon Contreras (Backing Jerry/Ensemble), Brad Greer (Backing Jerry/Ensemble), Nichole Turner (Backing Jerry/Ensemble).

Jerry Springer - The Opera

Music and Lyrics by Richard Thomas
Book and Additional Lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas

Scenic Design: Derek McLane
Costume Design: Sarah Laux
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Joshua D. Reid
Projection Design: Olivia Sebesky
Orchestrations: Greg Anthony Rassen
Musical Direction: Michael Brennan
Wig, Hair and Make-Up Design: David Bova and J. Jared Janas
Dance Captain: Kim Steele
Fight Direction: Jacob Grigolia-Rosenbaum
Production Supervisor: Five Ohm Productions
Production Stage Manager: James Harker
Casting: Telsey + Company, Cesar A. Rocha, CSA
Public Relations: Bridget Klapinski
Advertising: AKA
Associate Artistic Director: Ian Morgan
Development Director: Jamie Lehrer
General Manager: Kevin Condardo
Marketing Director: Stephanie Warren
Choreography by Chris Bailey
Directed by John Rando

Presented by The New Group the
Pershing Square Signature Center
480 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com
Information: www.thenewgroup.org
Running Time: Two Hours, 15 Minutes, one intermission
Closes: April 1, 2018

Matt McGrath will take over the role of "Jerry Springer", beginning March 13, 2018

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