Story: It’s a typical day on The Jerry Springer Show. The TV talk host who specializes in lowest-common-denominator topics has a representative cast of guests: A man who likes to wear and soil diapers and wants his girlfriend to mother him, while he's also having an affair with a woman baby; a two-timing sleazebag who cheats on his fiancé with her own sister as well as a transgender woman; and a redneck who objects to his wife pole dancing but doesn’t mind squandering his check at the local strip joint and also belongs to the Ku Klux Klan, who perform an unannounced, impromptu dance.
They’re all introduced to a rowdy audience that is encouraged to whoop it up by Jerry’s envious sidekick and kept in line by his bouncer Steve. On this episode, though, something goes way wrong: Jerry is shot and critically wounded by the baby adult whose aim misses the Klan and strikes Jerry instead.
As the host lies bleeding, he sees a preview of his after-life, doing a show at the ominous request of Satan, who still resents after so many millennia being shuffled off to Hell by God himself. Satan has his own guests he wants Jerry to interview, including Jesus, Mary, Adam, Eve and the Big Guy Above. What a show!
Highlights: Who is Jerry Springer, anyway? Before he was ringmaster for a TV salute to the misfit and misguided that’s been in syndication since 1992 (currently seen on KPLR-TV, Channel 11 weekdays at 3 p.m.), he was a serious young man whose Polish Jewish parents escaped the Holocaust.
Springer obtained a law degree and worked on the presidential campaign of Senator Bobby Kennedy. Later he moved to Ohio and served on the Cincinnati city council and even became mayor, despite paying a prostitute with a personal check years before that almost ended his career.
So, Jerry Springer has seen the ups and downs of life, something Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee wanted to translate into a musical. That’s what they did, writing the book, lyrics and music for Jerry Springer: The Opera, which won four Olivier Awards in London in 2004, including Best New Musical.
Their two-act work, an operetta of sorts in style and substance, is filled with vulgar, coarse language, blasphemous characterizations in the second act and outrageous, obnoxious, salacious characters. It’s also fitfully funny before it runs out of steam, especially in the energetic, inspired New Line Theatre presentation directed by Scott Miller.
Other Info: This ribald, bizarre creation of Thomas and Lee works very well until it drags dreadfully in the last 15 minutes of its two-hour running time. That’s when the writers ran out of ideas and decided to just have the cast monotonously sing a few songs, including the final number, Finale de Grand Fromage, that accomplishes nothing but let the audience know it’s nearly time to depart. Still, it was well received by patrons at the initial Saturday evening performance.
What Miller’s rendition does have is a number of performers whose strong, crystalline clear voices adapt well to an operatic style on the many clever arias written by the composers. Christina Rios glows as the shocked man-baby girlfriend on I Wanna Sing Something Beautiful, while Anna Skidis proves her versatility as actress and singer as pole-dancing Shawntel on I Just Wanna Dance.
Marshall Jennings elicits some of the most unexpected laughs as Montel, a man who prefers dumping his own waste into his giant diaper to the horror of the audience (on and off stage). Zachary Allen Farmer enjoys to the hilt portraying Dwight, the cad who cheats on his fiancé with two different people.
Ryan Foizey has too much fun as the oafish Chucky, Shawntel’s domineering husband. Taylor Pietz pouts effectively as Dwight’s cuckolded fiancé Peaches and rocks Montel’s world as the alluring Baby Jane. Lindsey Jones is a treat as Peaches’ malicious sister Zandra and a hoot as Shawntel’s officious mother Irene.
Matt Pentecost, so charismatic in New Line’s Bonnie & Clyde last year, is just as effervescent as Jerry’s jealous warm-up man and also as a dapper, debonair Satan, right down to his deep-red shirt. Matt Hill has a small role as the bouncer Steve, Luke Steingruby shows flair as the transgendered Tremont and Kimi Short is amusing as an “inner Valkyrie,” Jerry’s annoying conscience.
What makes this production work best, though, is Keith Thompson’s straightforward and affecting portrayal of Springer. While Jerry isn’t above firing an employee, Thompson primarily paints his character as a guy who lets his guests tell their own sordid stories, albeit with a moral jab here and there as their perplexed host. Thompson’s thoughtful performance anchors the show and allows other players their opportunities to stand out.
Sarah Porter’s costumes are wild and wonderful, Kimi Short’s props are revelatory and Robin Michelle Berger’s choreography is impressively intricate, given the confines of the stage, and well executed by Miller’s cast on Rob Lippert’s clever scenic design that works well as a studio set, augmented by his own lighting.
Miller coordinates the actions and reactions not only of Jerry’s guests but also the myriad, lowbrow elements making up the on-stage audience at stage left: Reynaldo Arceno, Tyler Cheatem, Joel Hackbarth, Ann Hier, Sarah Porter, Michelle Sauer, Kimi Short and Christopher Strawhun. That everything is so cohesive is testament to his patience and vision.
The New Line Band conducted by Jeffrey Richard Carter is at just the right volume to support singers without overwhelming them. It includes guitarist D. Mike Bauer, keyboardist Sue Goldford, percussionist Clancy Newell, trumpeter Patrick Swan, Robert Vinson on reeds and pianist Carter.
Jerry Springer: The Opera is juvenile, rude, crude and lewd, but also lots of fun.
Musical: Jerry Springer: The Opera
Company: New Line Theatre
Venue: Washington University South Campus Theatre, 6501 Clayton Road
Dates: March 12, 13, 14, 19, 20, 21, 26, 27, 28
Tickets: $15-$25 (plus student discounts from free to $10, educator and military discounts, subject to availability on Thursdays); contact 534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Jill Ritter Lindberg