"Jerry Springer the Opera" shock and satire

January 30, 2008 6:52:53 PM PST
Before there were Britney, Lindsay and Paris, the needy folks who make appearances on Jerry Springer's television talk show fulfilled our voyeuristic fantasies about the lives of those ready to self-destruct. The TV series may seem a distant memory for some (although the program is still on the air), but it has definite pop-culture status. One of its more usual legacies: "Jerry Springer the Opera," which belatedly has made its New York debut - several years after successful productions in Edinburgh, Scotland, and London.

This concert version, done for two performances Tuesday and Wednesday at Carnegie Hall and starring Harvey Keitel as a non-singing Springer, accentuates the strengths and weaknesses of this peculiar piece, a juxtaposition of high art and low behavior.

"Jerry Springer the Opera," overstuffed with four-letter words and deliberate naughtiness, is often funny but a bit condescending as it ferociously seeks to find meaning in the weirdness of the common man. Confession may be good for the soul, but bizarre, intimate revelations can grow tiresome - especially when they are delivered by characters who are little more than broadly drawn cartoons.

Fortunately, "Springer" has the benefit of an excellent, often vocally thrilling cast and lively production put together by director Jason Moore. The show, which has music by Richard Thomas and book and lyrics by Thomas and Stewart Lee, takes its tale directly from Springer's TV show.

The first act presents a series of outrageous confrontations. There's the love triangle, actually a rectangle - husband sleeping with wife's best friend while also carrying on with a transvestite.

Then the spouse who likes to wear diapers, much to the surprise of his wife. And, finally, the overweight woman who wants to be a pole dancer and whose husband is a closet member of the Ku Klux Klan.

The jokes are pretty heavy-handed but the cast delivers them well. Among the vocal standouts are Katrina Rose Dideriksen as the hefty exotic dancer, Linda Balgord as a disapproving, vindictive mother and Max von Essen as the lithe, prancing gender-bending lover of that triple-timing hubby.

Thomas' ambitious music often suggests the melodies of Handel, although his lyrics with Lee are more in the mode of David Mamet by way of Lenny Bruce. Yet there are traces of pure musical-comedy, too, particularly a surprisingly sweet "This Is My Jerry Springer Moment," sung by Laura Shoop, the baby-doll extracurricular activity of the diaper-loving man.

Act 1 ends with a big tap number (choreography by Josh Prince) done by white-robe-wearing members of the Klan, a moment reminiscent in spirit to the "Springtime for Hitler" extravaganza in "The Producers." And then Springer is shot.

After intermission, Springer finds himself in hell, shepherding a showdown between Jesus (Lawrence Clayton) and Satan (a magnetic David Bedella, brought over from the original London cast).

It's here where the book slows down as the authors attempt to invest "Jerry Springer the Opera" with some higher meaning. Springer lectures the devil and his divine counterparts, not only Jesus but God himself. He is played by a robust Luke Grooms, who laments in the show's funniest song, "It Ain't Easy Being Me."

"It's the human condition we're talking about here," Springer says. "Nothing is wrong and nothing is right. And everything that lives is holy."

That big moment is delivered a bit tentatively by a raspy-voiced Keitel, who, most likely, would grow into the role if there were more performances. And who knows if there will be? The Carnegie Hall gig could be seen as a possible precursor to a Broadway run.

"It's easy to occupy the moral high ground," Springer tells his conscience, portrayed by a horn-wearing Valkyrie (Patty Goble), early in the evening. "What's more difficult is to confidently occupy the moral low ground!"

"Jerry Springer the Opera" definitely knows how to deal with the latter.