In its day, now long-past, the”Jerry Springer Show” was an only-in-America phenomenon, so it’s only fitting that the British-made “Jerry Springer — The Opera” has finally come home to roost. Ostensibly a satire of that super-vulgar talk show and its uncouth participants, this Richard Thomas (music & lyrics) and Stewart Lee (book & additional lyrics) musical, produced Off Broadway by the New Group, is surprisingly free of the sometimes savage cruelty that distinguished the show from its wimpy competitors.
Terrence Mann (Beauty’s original Beast on Broadway, and a riveting Javert in “Les Misérables”) is wonderful as the ringmaster of this circus, a calming presence who soothes the beast he has baited into rattling its cage and howling at the moon. “I sense some hostility,” he mildly observes, after having whipped up the audience to a froth.
But it’s not exactly a free-for-all. There are, after all, certain rules of behavior. As Will Swenson’s suitably sleazy Warm-Up Man informs the blood-thirsty mob before the show, “Nobody’s allowed on stage / And nobody’s allowed to / Throw things at the guests.” Director John Rando has timed this spectacle for maximum exposure — and plenty of low laughs.
The audience is quick to declare, in the deliciously dirty lyrics of Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, what it wants to see: “Fat people fighting / Open crotch sighting / Pimps in bad suits / Mothers who are prostitutes.” The lyrics are even funnier set to Thomas’s surprisingly delicate musical compositions.
The chosen ones who make an appearance are exactly what you’d expect. Meet Dwight (Luke Grooms), who’s about to be married to Peaches (Florrie Bagel), but wants to confess that he’s been sleeping with her best friend, Zandra (Beth Kirkpatrick). Sure enough, out come Peaches and Zandra, who launch into some hilarious name-calling. “Dirty whore, dirty whore / Filthy dirty manky skanky slut whore.” (Fair warning: if this doesn’t strike you as hilarious, this is not your show.)
The frosting on this cupcake is Dwight’s confession that he’s been cheating on both of the women — with a guy named Tremont (Sean Patrick Doyle, a scream) who happens to be waiting in the wings to come on.
And so it goes throughout the first act, as one loser after another (dressed in appropriately outlandish outfits by costumer Sarah Laux) claim their “Springer Moment” by coming onstage to bare their darkest secrets in tuneful songs with dirty lyrics. The Warm-Up Man taunts them. The Bouncer warns them. In true passive-aggressive form, Jerry eggs them on. (“So, Baby Jane, what do you want to say to Andrea?”) And when things get really heated, steel yourself for that Springer special, “Talk to the Hand.”
Strange to say, none of this nonsense loses its charm — not until Act Two, after Springer is shot dead and takes his show on the road to purgatory. When told that he might wind up in hell, Springer says, “At this stage in my career, that would be a sideways move.” So, in “I Just Wanna Make You Happy,” the panicky host comes to his own defense.
At this point, everyone from Satan and Jesus to Adam and Eve get into the game, but sad to say, the humor falls flat and the show just isn’t the same.