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BWW Review: Terrence Mann and Will Swenson Star in Outrageous, Endearing and Perceptive JERRY SPRINGER - THE OPERA

"Dip me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians," sings a young lady feeling the bright television lights on her face as cameras capture her every move for a national audience in Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee's outrageous, endearing and perceptive social commentary, Jerry Springer -- THE OPERA.

BWW Review: Terrence Mann and Will Swenson Star in Outrageous, Endearing and Perceptive JERRY SPRINGER - THE OPERA
Will Swenson and Terrence Mann
(Photo: Monique Carboni)

She goes by the name of Baby Jane, but as her soprano voice sweetly expresses her desire for something more than her humdrum life in a song called "This Is My Jerry Springer Moment," she may as well be Cinderella wishing to be dressed in a beautiful gown and taken to the ball.

We can't all be the center of attention at a royal wedding, give the commencement speech at Harvard Law School or stand on the podium as the recipient of an Olympic gold medal, but for over a quarter of a century, television's "Jerry Springer Show" has given countless everyday people a chance to be the center of attention just for being themselves. Or perhaps an elevated reality version of themselves.

All you have to do is introduce your spouse to the person you've been cheating with, reveal your hidden sexual desires to a loved one or confront a family member with a long-simmering issue before a raucous studio audience revved up to cheer, boo and gasp. Bonus points for being willing to partake in an impromptu fistfight or wrestling match, knowing that a bodyguard will break things up before anyone gets hurt.

Sure, in the end you're just another interchangeable object of ridicule, and it's the host's name that the studio audience chants, not yours, but to those who have accepted the opportunity to have their own Jerry Springer moment, the experience has been said to be cleansing, liberating or, at the very least, a lot of fun.

And Jerry Springer - THE OPERA, which has finally arrived in its first full New York, courtesy of those edgy theatre specialists, The New Group, is indeed a lot of fun.

After creating enormous buzz with its developmental productions at London's Battersea Arts Centre and the Edinburgh Festival, composer/lyricist/bookwriter Thomas and lyricist/bookwriter Lee were invited by artistic director Nicholas Hytner to have a full mounting at The National Theatre. A transfer to the West End was followed by the 2004 Olivier Award for Best New Musical, but an announced Broadway production never materialized. In 2008, audience members passed by protesters objecting to the show's religious content when a two-night Carnegie Hall concert version was mounted, and now, thanks to those specialists in edgy material, The New Group, SPRINGER is being presented in its first full New York production.

Director John Rando's slam-bang staging takes place on designer Derek McLane's replica of the Springer TV set, with the audience surrounding the action on three sides. Cast members even sit up front, doubling as studio audience members until their characters are called on stage.

The first act is essentially an uncensored sung-through presentation of a typical broadcast. Segments include visits with Dwight (Luke Grooms), who confesses to cheating on his fiancé, Peaches (Florrie Bagel); not just with her best friend, Zandra (Beth Kirkpatrick), but with flamboyant cross-dresser Tremont (a flashy turn by Sean Patrick Doyle).

Montel (Justin Keyes) disgusts his girlfriend Andrea (Elizabeth Lovacano) when he shows how he enjoys wearing diapers and acting like a baby. It seems the only woman who gets him is Baby Jane, sung by Jill Paice with loving sincerity before breaking into her fetish anthem, "Mama Gimme Smack on the Asshole."

Most of this is played for laughs, but the mood turns more empathetic with the entrance of Shawntel (heart-tugging Tiffany Mann), who shows signs of abuse from her hot-tempered husband Chucky (Nathaniel Hackmann) and grim mother Irene (Jennifer Allen).

After a life of looking after others, Shawntel wants to do something for herself, and live out her dream of being a pole dancer in a strip club. When Mann belts out the determined power ballad "I Just Wanna Dance," the moment is entirely relatable for anyone so dissatisfied with life that they'd like to just chuck it all to pursue a crazy dream that makes them happy. And that's when Jerry Springer - THE OPERA may make you reconsider any moment when you've laughed at the supposedly ignorant guests whose dramas in life may not be so far removed from your own.

While opera experts may scoff at the title (there's also quite a bit of pop, jazz and showtune in the mix), the amount of legit singing demanded by the score brings out the reality that the stories of passion, lust and revenge depicted in the most popular works of that lofty art form aren't very different from what's to be viewed on this supposedly low example of pop culture.

BWW Review: Terrence Mann and Will Swenson Star in Outrageous, Endearing and Perceptive JERRY SPRINGER - THE OPERA
Terrence Mann, Billy Hepfinger, Beth Kirkpatrick,
Florrie Bagel, Luke Grooms and Sean Patrick Doyle
(Photo: Monique Carboni)

Jerry Springer himself is terrifically played with self-depreciating irony by Terrance Mann. A former mayor of Cincinnati, Springer had intended to host a serious talk show about hard-hitting issues, but low ratings forced the program to take on a rowdier tone or be cancelled.

Playing a primarily spoken role, Mann shows the host's dutiful effort to retain dignity for both himself and his guests, occasionally addressing the theatre audience to muss about his career track before becoming a trash television icon. ("I was campaign adviser to Robert Kennedy.")

Hyper-energetic Will Swenson is a blast as the show's warm-up man, whose job is to make sure the studio audience is always loudly reacting to the on-camera antics. Displaying alluring moves, rocker vocals and a sexy grin, Swenson comes off as a spotlight-hugging cross between Mick Jagger and Jack Cassidy.

The conflict between these two characters leads to a plot twist that finds Springer in Purgatory as the second act commences, forced by Satan (Swenson) to moderate a program where he can confront God (Grooms) and Jesus (Keyes).

This is where Jerry Springer - THE OPERA starts earning its protesters, as parallels are drawn between the Biblical characters and Jerry's human guests, particularly when Hackmann and Tiffany Mann play out a clash between Adam and Eve that reprises the lyrics they sang when Chucky demanded that Shawntel ditch her pole-dancing dreams and put her "fucking clothes on."

With the advent of more popular forms of reality television, and heck, with just the way current politics has been playing out, Jerry Springer's syndicated talk show, a controversial topic in its heyday, can now seem somewhat quaint by comparison. But that doesn't dilute Jerry Springer - THE OPERA's slyly delivered message of empathy for fellow humans just searching for their moment.

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From This Author Michael Dale

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