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Jerry Still Raises the Roof - Jerry Springer, The Opera (UK

Protests, headlines, and yet more protests. There is no such thing as bad publicity but is Jerry Springer, The Opera deserved of such attention and more importantly, is it any good? I first saw the show 2 years ago in the West End and it blew me away. The risqué lyrics, cleverness of the script, operatic style theatrics and the excellent tap dancing guest stars all added up to one of the most original shows that I have ever seen. With songs containing lines like "Dip Me in Chocolate and Throw Me to the Lesbians" it certainly continues to raise laughs and eyebrows.  

But has the show still got the power to shock and entertain in this smaller scale tour? Judging by the applause and standing ovations following the first night in Manchester, the answer is a resounding yes. For the unitiated, Jerry Springer may seem like a strange choice for an opera. But as writer Richard Thomas says: "It's got tragedy. It's got violence. There are people screaming at each other and you can't understand what they are saying. It's perfect for opera." When you sit down to watch this wonderful show you are drawn into the narrative via the vocal gymnastics on display. You do not need to be familiar with the confessional TV show where guests cleanse themselves of past sins by fessin' all to the host, the audience and millions of folks at home. This production works on two levels as fans of the show will love the fact that the 'close to the bone' dialogue is sung in the style of an opera making it funnier still, whilst lovers of opera will appreciate how a genre can crossover and reach an otherwise brand new audience.

Writers Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee aimed to get as many young first timers into the theatre as possible. Looking round the crowd, there were plenty of newcomers who looked suitably entertained, grinning from ear to ear. So it looks like their plan has worked.  

Of the cast Rolf Saxon plays Springer, the host of the gladiatorial show in which guests tear seven strips off each other all in the name of TV. Following in the footsteps of Michael Brandon and David Soul, he does very well playing it straight and earnestly acting as the pivot which the guests circle around. Dean Hussain plays the dual role of the warm up man and Satan with real ease. He literally owns the stage as the devil and the audience warm to him accordingly. Johan Pearson is the face you see in the theatre as you arrive as he plays Steve the Security Guard. Like Gromit the dog, much of the humour comes from the use of body language and facial expressions and he rises to the challenge with aplomb.

Act one features a variety of guests with problems for the host to solve through 'therapy speak'. Dwight has been seeing someone else, overweight would be pole dancer Shawntel offends her mother and boyfriend via her ambitions, and Montel just wants to be his lover's baby, literally! But just when you think you can predict the outcome Act two features Jerry attempting to keep Jesus and The Devil away from each others' throats as he hosts his show in hell. This is the section which has offended the Christian community. Although it is very hard to see how because this is satire, not all out blasphemy. The show represents all of its guests as cartoon stereotypes whether it is gay men as camp effeminates, working classes as trailer trash and Catholics brandishing the cross whilst calling people "Whores." But that's the joy of the show as it touches upon subjects that many would shy away from and does ask more questions than the average musical production.   

One song "Sit, excrete and watch TV" highlights how housebound we all have become so you would have thought that critics of the show would view the fact that people have left their homes as a good thing. The spoof adverts within the piece convey the feeling of a society obsessed by looks, religion and fear and make you smile with pure recognition.  

Of the songs, "I Just Wanna Dance" still stands out as being the best. Helen Walsh really puts her heart and soul into the role of Shawntel and therefore does more with the character than you would expect. Hers is a truly moving performance. "It Ain't Easy Being Me" is also incredibly memorable, partly because it's sung by God! But also because Benjamin Lake as the divine one hits the heights, thrilling the audience. "Mama Gimmee Smack on The Asshole" has much more than Sunday Sport style lyrics to keep you smiling. The great thing about the music here is that it has a life of its own. The ensemble is excellent and remains on stage throughout the piece. They keep the spirits of the audience high and work them into a frenzy papering over the tiny plot cracks in act two.

Julian Crouch's set design is slightly disappointing in comparison with the West End version. It feels a bit basic and a tad too simplistic diluting the impact of the nightmarish vision of Jerry's hell. But at least you get a feel for the original National Theatre production which is not a bad thing. Also the sheer professionalism of the performers and surprisingly good songs means that you watch in awe regardless of the lack of window dressing. 

I faced a small crowd of protesters on my way into the theatre. I am convinced that many of them have not seen Jerry. If they had, they may be joining the audience in a rousing chorus of "Talk to the hand cos the face ain't listening." This award winning, genre busting production lives on and proves that it has much more than shocks and racy lyrics. Yes, the swearing will offend some but in terms of originality, 100 watt performances, and genuine laughter, this is still the show to beat. 

 In the words of the warm up man "Have yourselves a good time." LONG LIVE JERRY!

Glenn Meads (Reviewed at The Opera House, Manchester, UK) for tour dates and venues.

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From This Author - Glenn Meads

Living in Manchester, Glenn writes for covering Salford, Manchester and Bolton. He also teaches Media, Film and English. His favourite writers are Arthur Miller, (read more...)