'Jerry Springer' Reveres God of Trash Talk

By: May. 18, 2009
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"Jerry Springer: The Opera"

Music by Richard Thomas; book and lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas; director, Paul Daigneault; music director/conductor, Dan Rodriguez; choreography, David Connolly; scenic design, Eric Levenson' costume design, Seth Bodie; lighting design, Karen Perlow; sound design, Aaron Mack; projection design, Seaghan McKay; production stage manager, Dawn Schall


Jerry Springer, Michael Fennimore; Steve Wilkos, John Porell; Warm-Up Man/Satan, Timothy John Smith; Dwight/God, Luke Grooms; Peaches/Baby Jane, Ariana Valdes; Zandra/Irene/Mary, Amelia Broome; Tremont/Angel Gabriel, Jared Troilo; Montel/Jesus, Brian Richard Robinson; Andrea/Angel Michael/Valkyrie, Kerry A. Dowling; Shawntel/Eve, Joelle Lurie; Chucky/Adam, Wesley Thomas

Performances: Now through May 30, SpeakEasy Stage Company, Stanford Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts, 257 Tremont Street, Boston, Mass.

Tickets: BostonTheatreScene box office at 617-933-8600 or www.SpeakEasyStage.com

It's difficult to comprehend why anyone would parade his or her dirty laundry out onto an internationally syndicated talk show just to achieve that elusive 15 minutes of fame. But television's Jerry Springer has amassed a fortune exploiting people's desperate desires for notoriety, and vulnerable men and women to this day continue to confess to affairs, aberrations, and dirty little secrets that inevitably lead to on-air cat fights and profanity.

Jerry Springer: The Opera, currently getting a wild and wooly New England premiere at the SpeakEasy Stage in Boston, recreates and amplifies the crazy confrontations that the real Jerry Springer and his team of handlers and security guards orchestrate on a daily basis to the delight of voyeuristic audiences all over the world. Almost completely sung through, this highly controversial and irreverent Olivier Award-winning musical cuts to the heart of the sadness beneath the circus by transforming ludicrous trash talk into a grandly operatic lampoon. An odd-sounding mix, for sure, the contrasting sensibilities nevertheless work hilariously together to deliver surprisingly touching insights into what on the surface looks like simple celebrity-seeking madness.

Act I trots out all of the stock characters and situations that invariably incite Springer's audiences to cheer and jeer as if they were feeding gladiators to lions. But creators Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas add extreme twists that make the show's warring guests seem at once ridiculous and sympathetic. Cheating fiancées, crack whores, cross dressers, and fetishists cross paths with pole dancers, spankos, religious zealots and the KKK, all singing and dancing their confessions and suppressed desires in heightened chants and dramatic arias. Cast members play both the parody and the passion deliciously, spewing the crudest of epithets in exquisite operatic voice.

The second act comes as a complete surprise. Instead of spreading the joke too thin by giving us more of the same predictable on-air antics, Lee and Thomas turn Jerry Springer into a scathing morality play. Springer is literally sent to Hell to make restitution for all the lives he's ruined by using his Jerrycam to feed dysfunction instead of shed healing light on damaged relationships. His contentious audience Warm-Up Man (get it?) now becomes Satan, threatening Springer with a fate worse than death if he doesn't help him earn forgiveness - and a return to angelic status in Heaven - from a hapless, gospel-singing God. An effeminate baby Jesus, a defensive mother Mary, and a choir of combative angels all become Springer's other worldly "guests" as he attempts to unite the forces of Heaven and Hell through ersatz conflict resolution.

It's easy to see why Jerry Springer has earned the wrath of Christian groups who have protested the show's content wherever it's been performed. But it is precisely this pointed impertinence that gives the opera its clout. By drawing parallels between religious ardor and celebrity worship, Jerry Springer exposes the hypocrisies and abuses of power that manipulate rather than enlighten blind followers. The opera also raises the question of individual responsibility. If we choose to seek fame, however fleeting, by selling our souls to an opportunist, can we really hold him accountable if in the process of basking in the limelight the heat destroys our fragile lives?

SpeakEasy Artistic Director Paul Daigneault has assembled a crackerjack cast that delivers every musical "Jerry Springer moment" with great commitment and flair. From the featured players who double as guests both earthy and divine to the spirited ensemble who portray rabid fans, the actors go full tilt, letting their inhibitions fly and their voices soar. Michael Fennimore as Jerry, Jerry, Jerry is as ruthless as he is bewildered. Timothy John Smith as the Warm-Up Man/Satan is as comical as he is frightening. (Smith also looks just fine in flaming red leather.) John Porell as head of security Steve Wilkos looms non-stop, alternately fanning and containing the fires of passion that ignite the many brawls that break out among the audience and guests.

Luke Grooms as Dwight/God sings with a warm, rich baritone that evokes sympathy even when he's being self-absorbed. Brian Richard Robinson as Montel/Jesus is an exuberant twice blessed "baby" who never flinches despite the fact that he wears a diaper for most of the show. The statuesque Jared Troilo projects a tart, snappy attitude as the transvestite Tremont and the equally surly Angel Gabriel. Joelle Lurie as the oppressed housewife Shawntel earns considerable compassion when she sings a surprisingly tender solo "I Just Wanna Dance." Then in Act II she turns the tables on her redneck husband Chuck (Wesley Thomas) as she becomes the domineering Eve to his befuddled Adam. Rounding out the cast of colorful misfits are Ariana Valdes, Amelia Broome, and Kerry A. Dowling, each of whom brings a gorgeous voice to decidedly cracked - and crass - characters. With perfect timing and what appears to be effortless fluidity, Daigneault's excellent cast makes penetrating satire out of madcap mayhem.

The SpeakEasy design team of Eric Levenson, Seth Bodie, Karen Perlow, Aaron Mack, and Seaghan McKay also rises to the challenge, transforming the versatile black box of the Roberts Theatre into an exact replica of the Jerry Springer television studio (don't ask how I know that). A working monitor above the brick and pipe sunken living room set projects show titles that are replaced at the commercial breaks by hilarious advertising parodies that hawk precisely the right products at precisely the right time. Ads for cosmetic surgery, pain killers, ED remedies, and even guns match the target demographic and situation unfolding at the time. Hand-held video cameras also capture and project real-time live-action stage fights that break out between audience members, security crews and guests. The impact can only be described as controlled pandemonium. At times real audience members are so caught up in the action that they join in by barking the prompted Jerry chant. Costumes range from trailer park chic to farcical exaggerations of religious iconography. The overall effect is blissfully condescending and empathetic at the same time.

Although there were rumors about a Broadway transfer of Jerry Springer: The Opera after the West End run proved so successful, a main stem production never materialized. Too bad. This original, intricate, and surprisingly moral musical is truly inventive theater of the absurd.

PHOTOS BY STRATTON McCRADY: Luke Grooms as Dwight, Ariana Valdes as Peaches, Dave Christensen as Dwayne Wayne, and Michael Fennimore as Jerry Springer; Joelle Lurie as Shawntel and Wesley Thomas as Chucky; Jared Troilo as Angel Gabriel and Michael Fennimore; Timothy John Smith as Satan



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