Jerry Springer the Opera Review 2003
The Jerry Springer Show has got to be one of the most popular talk shows on American TV. A confessional show that knows no limits in allowing the guilty and the simply self-obsessed to reveal their most dreadful secrets to their ‘loved. These scenes of verbal self-flagellation can be anything from a man who admits to loving his horse, a daughter who has incestuous fantasies about her father or a lesbian mother telling her children she really wants to be a man. The sheer shock, horror and total distaste that the programme is able to generate in its audience are bizarrely the reasons for its success - there is an apparent addictive charge to the thought “I can’t believe I am watching this”.
Richard Thomas the composer of ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’, was the man who originally had the genius to combine the low sleazy soap-opera of the Jerry Springer Show to the high classical opera that one associates with a requiem mass. As Thomas says in the programme “I am not a catholic, but I do like a requiem”. He eventually teamed up with Stewart Lee and between them the book and lyrics for ‘Jerry Springer the opera’ was finally brought to fruition.
The scene is Jerry Springer’s TV studio where the motley studio audience are having the rules, which will govern their behaviour, explained to them by the Warm-Up man. (David Bedella). “No fighting! No coming on stage! No throwing things!” to which the audience passively nod until they are told ‘No Heckling’ at which they shout their protests and use body language to express their defiance.
Just before this the same audience had been singing of their desire to appear on the TV show, now they are preparing themselves to shout down the guests with cries of “Loser”, “Crack Whore” and worse, all set to operatic scores.
And so we are introduced to the ‘losers’-Dwight (Benjamin Lake) confesses to having two affairs behind his fiancés back, one with her best friend Peaches (Lore Lixenberg) and one with Tremont (Andrew Bevis) the ‘Chick with a Dick’. Montel (Wills Morgan), a coprohile, strips off his clothes and reveals that he is wearing a diaper and asks his girlfriend to play diaper games. Finally, the obese Shawntel tells of her wish to be a pole dancer, a wish opposed by her woman hating redneck of a husband who we discover is a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan.
The first act ends with a troop of tap dancing white robed Ku Klux Klan members, and Jerry Springer (played by Michael Brandon) being ‘accidentally’ shot by a deranged Montel determined to kill at least one KKK member.
The second half is a complete parody of Christianity. The guests of the Jerry Springer Show never recover from their stupidity by revealing all on TV and end up as lost souls in hell. The devil forces Jerry to host a version of his show in hell in which Jesus, Mary, the Devil and God all make an appearance and have to put up with the humiliation of being treated with the same distain as any other guest on the Jerry Springer show. Jesus is exposed as gay and God complains, “It ain’t easy being me”.
The casting is superb throughout, though David Bedella who plays the ‘Warm-Up Man’ and the ‘Devil’ is in a class of his own. He exudes personality and as I defy anyone not to warm to his cheeky grin and wicked eyes.
The show works because of the sheer audacity to set this appallingly bad-taste trash to glorious operatic scores. It is amazing how unexpectedly funny it can be to listen to a combination of foul-mouthed words sang as serious opera. The final scene is one of classic comical genius that is a sheer side splitting delight.
The paradox of this show is that the more foul-mouthed and low browed the material the funnier it becomes and this as got to be one of the most tasteless shows ever. The show is bound for cult status.
(Production photos by Catherine Ashmore).
Of the two National Theatre productions directed by Nicholas Hytner that I have seen, I loved Carousel but hated Mother Clap's Molly House. Therefore, solely on the basis of my limited experience of his work for the National, I had mixed feelings about the appointment of Mr Hytner as the successor to Trevor Nunn as Artistic Director. Well, although it's early days, and I know Nicholas Hytner is not directly involved in this show, but if the production of Jerry Springer The Opera is a foretaste of things to come, then audiences at the National are in for an exciting future.
I loved it. I've not laughed so much in the theatre for a long time. The lines, while funny in themselves, were truly enhanced by the fact that they formed the lyrics to bona fide operatic arias. I can't repeat any of the lines here (my mum might read this!) but if you have a broad mind and can tolerate extreme language, equally extreme lifestyles and, some might say, a close to blasphemous depiction of the afterlife, then get down to the South Bank and see this show.
The show is through-sung by an incredibly talented group of actors, most of whom were new names to me, apart from the only speaking role - that of Jerry Springer himself, in a startlingly accurate portrayal by Michael Brandon.
The first act, set on the set of The Jerry Springer Show introduces us to a character who is cheating on his partner with another woman and a transsexual; a man with a disturbingly worrying nappy fetish; and an overweight wannabe pole-dancer married to a card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan. The first act closes with a hilarious song and dance routine worthy of Mel Brooks' The Producers with the stages packed with hooded KKK members. The second act descends into hell - weren't we there already? The brick walls of the loft-style studio set have disintegrated into a crumbling mess. The trailer-trash characters introduced in the first act now take the roles of God, Jesus, Mary, and the Archangel Gabriel. For me the performance of the night came from David Bedella as the warm-up man who thinks he's the star of the Jerry Springer Show who then becomes Satan in the second act.
Don't be misled into thinking that this is just a student revue by a group of people-who-should-know-better thinking it's big and clever to swear on the stage. The singing is as good as anything you will hear in any sparkly West End show or, I'd venture to say, Covent Garden or the ENO. And while the language includes some of the filthiest words in the English-speaking world, the show has a serious message about the nature of people who crave attention and will do anything for their fifteen minutes of fame and their exploitation by the media.
Congratulations to everyone involved in this production - it really deserves to transfer to a commercial West End theatre ... if there's one that will dare to take it.
What other critics had to say.....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "It's vulgar, salacious but such a pleasure." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "But the supreme merit of Lee's Lyttelton production is that it is superbly sung." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE for THE TIMES says, " If ever a show seems destined for cult status, this is it."
External links to full reviews from popular press