It’s not often you arrive at Carnegie Hall and have a petition thrust at you, urging you to “Sign up to defend Jesus and Mary” from the musical recital about to take place inside. But the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property was out in force Tuesday at the first of two superbly staged presentations of “Jerry Springer: The Opera” to decry the blasphemous content of the celebrated London hit, which has taken five years to reach New York. The test of turning that brief visit into a longer commercial stay, however, will depend less on prayer protests than the challenges of the work itself.
The producers, director Jason Moore and musical director Stephen Oremus dipped equally into opera and musical theater talent pools to assemble an accomplished cast of 33, shrewdly adding a marquee name from filmdom by planting Harvey Keitel in the title role. But while the scaled-back physical production (with minimal video assist) works fine to depict a TV studio and its equivalent space in Hell, the robust corps of performers underscores how much the show’s musical eclecticism needs large numbers to achieve its full power.
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Hearing the real deal, with soaring harmonies backed by Oremus’ deceptively rich-sounding eight-piece orchestra, it’s hard to imagine the bold referential sweep in Richard Thomas’ score — of everything from Handel-esque High Mass to Bach to Mozart to ’70s musicals, R&B and gospel — not sacrificing some of its majestic complexity with a smaller cast. That places the show out of reach to Off Broadway and likely would make it financially daunting to the main stem — not to mention the potential for its outrageous content to scare off Middle American tourist traffic. A limited season at an adventurous opera company might be the only way to go.
If a case can be made for mounting a commercial production in New York, the creative team here makes it. During the stint on London’s West End that followed its 2003 run at the National and prior U.K. fringe exposure, “Jerry Springer” became a broad shtick-a-thon, dumbing down its ballsy juxtaposition of trashy profanity with highbrow opera into a single joke with the durability of a comedy sketch.
Moore (“Avenue Q”) and his cast take the work seriously, not only teasing out its obvious reflections on the exploitation of tawdriness and torment in American popular culture, but uncovering the poignancy in the sad, passionate yearnings of its freaks and rednecks. The staging gives dignity to human detritus.
The show’s weaknesses — most notably a structurally repetitious second act that loses focus precisely when it should be becoming more thematically cohesive — remain evident, but its satiric bite is as sharp as ever, its scurrilous humor just as tasty and its musical ambition as uplifting.
The book by Stewart Lee and Thomas mimics a typical “Springer Show” lineup built around the topic of “Guilty Secrets.” Moore has the ensemble file onstage like oratorio performers in Ilona Somogyi’s nicely understated low-income street clothes, and then ushers them into rows of seating alongside the orchestra to serve as Jerry’s rowdy studio audience. Their impatience (“Bring on the losers!”) is fanned by the Warm-Up Man (David Bedella), erupting into a chorus of “Jerry Jerry, Go Jerry Go, Jerry” as the star bounds down the Carnegie aisle (with Keitel pausing to demand a hug from Robert De Niro on the way).
Trotted out over a series of sordid revelations are philandering Dwight (Luke Grooms), his best-friend lovers Peaches (Patricia Phillips) and Zandra (Linda Balgord), and “chick-with-a-dick” flame Tremont (a scene-stealing Max von Essen). They unleash the show’s standard stream of hurled obscenities in buoyant recitative while the audience chimes in with cries of “Slut junky,” “Crack whore” and “Tacky queen.” “Tosca” this ain’t.
Next up is coprophiliac, diaper-wearing Montel (Lawrence Clayton), his reluctant Mama, Andrea (Emily Skinner), and fellow wannabe infant Baby Jane (Laura Shoop), followed by zaftig poledancer Shawntel (Katrina Rose Dideriksen) and her mullet-topped Klansman husband Chucky (Sean Jenness).
As outre as these folks’ deviant desires might seem, what emerges through the thicket of gleeful obscenity and flying fists is the hunger of these voiceless low-lifes to be seen and heard — to have their “Jerry Springer moment,” as a signature refrain puts it. When Skinner steps forward, tenderly declaring, “I want to sing something beautiful, I want to sing something positive,” or when Dideriksen with aching vulnerability reveals how dancing releases Shawntel from squalid reality, the show takes on a soulful dimension that ennobles its subjects’ willingness to expose their dirty laundry.
All this is deftly explored in the first act, which culminates with Jerry being shot on air. It’s after intermission, when he imagines himself in Hell that things stall repeatedly. Act one is played out again as Jerry is forced to moderate a debate between Satan (Bedella) and Jesus (Clayton), with God (Grooms), Mary (Balgord), Adam (Jenness) and Eve (Dideriksen) all stepping into the fray. It’s a clever mutation of life into afterlife but despite some sparkling interludes — Bedella and Clayton’s extended, liturgical “Fuck You” exchange is a high point, as is Grooms’ glorious “It Ain’t Easy Being Me” — the mudslinging seems like an over-extended replay.
The problem lies chiefly in the writing but Keitel’s performance also contributes. While it’s fun seeing him up there as the only non-singing element of a rag-tag bunch, the actor looks distinctly uncomfortable. Jerry’s laughs come mainly from his deadpan responses to high-drama confessions or explosions of rage (“You seem upset,” “I sense some hostility”), but Keitel makes a lazy straight man.
He warms up with a second-act monologue that gives him more meat to chew on, briefly considering the unfamiliar notion of guilt as Jerry reflects that his exploitation of people’s problems might in fact create and perpetuate them. “A person with less broadcasting experience might feel responsible,” he says. But he deflects the blame back onto the folks themselves, maintaining that he’s merely holding up a mirror.
The bias of the show’s pendulum as it swings between pious and pagan, exhibitionism and voyeurism, good and evil, is perhaps heightened by the fact that in Bedella’s performance (repeating the role he played in London), the Prince of Darkness in both incarnations is a far more galvanizing, charismatic figure than Keitel’s bystander Jerry. But considering, as the show suggests, everyone has their guilty secrets, maybe Hell really is the only place we know where we are.