SING TO THE HAND
A literally damning critique of American popular culture, Jerry Springer: The Opera soars in the Chance Theater’s Southern California premiere. An opera this critical could have only originated across the Atlantic. British duo Stewart Lee (book and lyrics) and Richard Thomas (book, lyrics, and music) incisively lambast our culture’s quest for stardom and our questionable idols in this perversely delightful opera.
Mounting Jerry Springer: The Opera is no small feat. Of course, there are the political hurdles to leap. If Act I shocks and offends with a raucous musical version of the popular TV show, then Act II is downright blasphemous in its epic battle between God and the Devil for Jerry Springer’s soul.
The Chance Theater has developed a reputation, though, for skillfully conquering such risky productions; their 2010 production of the infamous flop Merrily We Roll Along was a revelation for Sondheim devotees, and their carefully-crafted production of the cult classic The Who’s Tommy even transferred to Segerstrom Center in a welcome collaboration between Orange County venues. The Chance has taken the religious protests against Jerry Springer: The Opera in playful stride. (There is no such thing as bad press, right?) And as always, the Chance backs up their chancy artistic choices with innovative, quality productions.
In Jerry Springer, a youthful and obscenely talented cast of nineteen tackles Thomas’ challenging harmonies and counterpoint, as well as his exhilarating arias, with verve. Their vocal blend as an ensemble is stunning and articulation is always precise, thanks to music director Mike Wilkins. Trevor Biship’s direction of the show is comic and crisp, although the brief spoken scenes sometimes sink in comparison to such dramatic musical numbers.
As Jerry hosts his TV show in Act I, each of his guests indulges in a heightened and emotional “Jerry Springer moment,” their Warholian 15 minutes of fame. Shawntel (the outstanding Jessie Withers) erupts into an aspirational ballad “I Just Wanna Dance” – the “What I Did for Love” of poledancing. Jared Pugh comically cavorts about the stage as an oversized baby in “Diaper Man.” And the Ku Klux Klan tap dances, taking into their own bodies a dance style of notable African-American origins. This is a bitter and disturbing irony, indeed. The ensemble sits among the audience, encouraging participation in the chants for “Jerry!” – and implicating the audience in their own adulation of pop culture.
Kelly Todd’s buoyant choreography, from set numbers like the KKK tap dance to the ensemble’s physical interjections from the audience, helps to create an immersive and engaging “live TV” atmosphere. While the incorporation of video technology to amplify the “Jerry Springer moments” is appropriate, the transition to using this technology is sometimes a little disjunctive.
Yet the final projected close-up of Jerry Springer’s face is worth a thousand words. Act II’s epic trial of Jerry Springer would like to hold this magnified television idol accountable for a world of sins. But however pervasive Jerry’s name may be throughout the show and however compelling Warren Draper’s performance, this is not ultimately an opera about Jerry Springer. The amorality in American pop culture must ultimately come down on the ruthless guests clamoring for fame as well as the attentive audience members themselves. If you enjoyed Act I, then take heart: you are equally to blame for a politically-disengaged, perversely idolatrous society.
Certain references throughout Jerry Springer: The Opera may feel dated (like the phrase “talk to the hand”), and the TV show itself no longer holds the shock and draw that it did in the 90s. Yet this opera’s searing critique of American pop culture is still relevant, and the Chance Theater offers an endlessly entertaining and thought-provoking production. I would love to see this show make its way to LA one day, piercing the heart of the Hollywood mythology. But for now, I highly recommend taking a break from Jersey Shore and the Kardashians for a weekend trek to Anaheim Hills.
stellis @ stageandcinema.com
photos by Chance Theater
Jerry Springer: The Opera
scheduled to end on August 14
for tickets, visit http://www.chancetheater.com/