“Jerry Springer – The Opera” made a remarkable commercial charge in England, springboarding from the National Theater to the West End and taking home the 2004 Olivier Award for new musical. But some shows are just better off playing the underdog. Too darn good to just go away after plans for Broadway fell through, but too much of a controversial hot potato for commercial theaters or big, donor-driven non-profits, this startlingly pleasurable collision of musical sophistication and pop culture vulgarity finally lands on American shores in a creditable production at Chicago’s small, non-Equity Bailiwick Rep.
Above all, “Jerry Springer – The Opera” boasts a superbly original, elaborate and artful score from Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee. It generates constant humor from the combination of low-life characters singing in a highfalutin style, bringing a degree of oversized emotion to lyrics that celebrate the tawdry. “This is my Jerry Springer moment,” goes one of the many delightfully tuneful songs that repeats throughout, “So dip me in chocolate, and throw me to the lesbians/I don’t want this moment to die.”
Believe it or not, prominent opera companies considered doing this show, providing some indication of the quality of the music itself. The problem is that such high-end environments would simply become part of the joke; the show itself couldn’t possibly compete with watching opera subscribers who’ve never seen the Springer show respond to choral explosions of “Chick with a dick!” as the ensemble playing Jerry’s audience reacts to guests who spill their deepest secrets.
At the niche-driven Bailiwick, best known for its gay-friendly musical revues like the current “Barenaked Lads Take Off-Broadway,” such distractions seem unlikely. The audiences will know pretty much what they’re getting into, and they can simply enjoy the sometimes side-splitting clash of low and high art that drives the show.
In director David Zak’s production, there’s a genuine degree of affection for the denizens of the Jerry Springer show, which tapes not far away. While the ultra-polished, over-the-top London production had far more satirical bite, flaunting raunchiness and angry desperation, the show’s American debut infuses raw, youthful energy with a far more gentle, life-sized take on Jerry’s fans and guests. That extends even to Jerry himself, played by a baby-faced Brian Simmons with a sympathetic sense of the very human ability for denial.
The first part of the show follows a series of guests with guilty secrets — the song list, including “Diaper Man,” provides plenty of hints. At the end of act one, Jerry is shot, awakening to a dream sequence in Hell, where he attempts to moderate the dispute between God (sweet-voiced Joe Tokarz) and the Devil (an especially strong Jeremy Rill, injecting the right dosage of camp).
Always eager if not always seasoned, the large cast sounds particularly strong in the choral sequences, and overall they serve the score very well. No question, the production could go a lot further; Jeff Jones’ costumes, for example, are fully sufficient, occasionally outrageous by most standards, but in this context quite restrained. Zak adds a couple of TV screens, but they don’t really add much beyond an unnecessary ironic sentimentality during solos.
In fact, this production arguably has turned a decidedly daring show into something more purely comic in nature, but the approach has its advantages. While the scenes could use sharper edges, deeper emotion and more boisterousness, Zak’s light and unpretentious touch charges through the less fulfilling, later sections of the show with a nice pace, and this easily digestible, ever-amusing production definitely doesn’t outstay its welcome.
Certain moments it hits with particular aplomb, particularly Kate Garassino’s sincere ode to pole-dancing, “I Just Wanna Dance,” and the act one finale, a “Producers”-like tap dance spectacle involving the KKK. Most fundamentally, the production succeeds at sending the audience out humming the songs, among them the deliciously melodious “Mamma Gimme Smack on the Asshole.”