When Anaheim’s Chance Theater won the rights to the SoCal premiere of U.K. hit “Jerry Springer: The Opera,” it was a testament to that plucky storefront company’s adventurous attack on ambitious tuners. The leaseholders’ faith was mostly justified in this instance, as musical director Mike Wilkins steers a stable of sophisticated singers through Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas’ excitingly eclectic score. Before the extravaganza ends, however, it has fallen prey to its (and the source material’s) worst impulses.
Act one’s re-creation of a typical Jerry Springer episode – America’s flotsam made to confront their lives’ jetsam before a jeering mob – is consistently startling and amusing. It was rather brilliant of the authors to hear arias in the self-aggrandizing, self-pitying moans of a Guido type balancing two mistresses and a tranny, or a would-be pole dancer and her intolerant spouse. The Chance cast chews on their foibles with solid vocal chops, as a wide-eyed, addled Jerry (Warren Draper) wanders around drumming up mayhem (“Andrea, you seem upset. What do you want to say to Montel?”).
Mortally wounded just before intermission, Jerry is summoned to stage a special episode in Hades. But as the host goes to hell, so does the production. The dignity and respect helmer Trevor Biship solemnly bestows on Jerry’s guests are pointedly, smugly withheld from Satan, God and other Bible figures, whose costumes and behavior are right out of a drunken Halloween party. This Prince of Darkness (David Laffey) couldn’t scare small children.
Some of the silliness is in the libretto, for sure. But it would be interesting if the f-bomb duet between Lucifer and a wimpy, whiny Jesus (Jared Pugh) were actually sung with some balls, or if there were anything at stake in the clash between God (Jovani McCleary) and his fallen angels as acted out before the cameras of the damned. Having decided that a most un-Springer-like fey campiness should be the order of the day, Biship systematically drives a stake through the wit and excitement.
Through the diminishing laughs (and the weariness eventually caused by Wilkins’ small pit band trying to do justice to Thomas’ majestical compositions), Kelly Todd’s choreography is crisply executed by an energetic ensemble. Lianne Arnold fills the commercial breaks with wacky, elaborate video fun.
But the production loses the eye of the tiger, coming across less provocative than wan. The few banner-wielding fundamentalists across the street from the Chance would make a better case if they protested the show’s artistic transgressions rather than its spiritual ones.