Review: Jerry Springer – The Opera

Jerry Springer The Opera is the best piece of theater I’ve seen in San Francisco this year. Irreverent, blasphemous, profane, sure. That’s a given. What’s surprising is how effective this immensely challenging work is, how well suited this subject is to a full operatic treatment.

And there should be no doubt about it, this is a full opera. The score is sophisticated and varied, a kaleidoscopic blend of musical theater, baroque oratorio, pop, rock, and occasionally branching into it’s own dissonant vocabulary. And it is fiendishly difficult, not just for the soloists, but for the entire ensemble. Ray of Light has assembled an astonishing array of singers for this production, one that has renewed my faith in the depth of talent here in San Francisco.

The first act is simply a rendition of any episode of Jerry Springer, with the slight modification that everyone on stage (with some important exceptions), is singing. All the obligatory Springerisms are on display, the revealed secrets, the surprise guests, the sexual fetishes, the cheap tawdry car wrecks of people’s lives. But something wonderful happens when this is set to music.

For one, the ensemble is actually given a coherent voice. You can’t get much character out of a murmuring (or chanting) crowd, but by giving sung text to the studio audience in a greek chorus fashion, they become much more involved in the happenings. They become malevolent, celebrity obsessed masses, goading on the show’s participants, jeering at their shortcomings, cheering them on when the chairs start to fly, all the while disregarding their own lowly status.

But when the guests themselves sing, it’s something different. They’re singing about the very things that make them outcasts, their perversions, their adultery, their scatology, but… their voices… the music… it sounds just gorgeous. Sometimes this cognitive dissonance is simply for comedic effect, which is, in fact, funny, but there are lovely, beautiful moments when the music lends these sad unhappy people some dignity. For a brief time they’re not the butt of a joke, but the center of well deserved attention… that skank really DOES want to dance (albeit on a stripper pole). That tranny really DOES love that white trash schlub. Those feelings and emotions are misguided and irrational, but they’re honestly felt. How else but through music could this ever be expressed?

And then there’s the most brilliant gesture in the show’s conception. The device that allows the opera to perfectly capture the feeling of the Jerry Springer Show: Jerry doesn’t sing a note. He just reads his cards. It doesn’t matter to him that everyone around him is singing opera any more than it matters that one of them wants to wear diapers all the time or that another has three separate lovers of varying genders. He’s of a different world, a completely separate plane above (or below) the events transpiring around him. Jerry is disengaged, somehow controlling the show while barely even being aware of what’s going on.

If Jerry remains largely a cypher in the first act, the second and third act seeks to explore his own culpability in the whole sordid affair. It also generates the controversy that has severely hampered US productions of this piece. In as blasphemous manner as one could imagine, Jerry finds himself in hell, forced to stage a version of his show where Satan himself confronts his nemesis, Jesus Christ. The show asks a lot of itself, attempting to say something sensible about the eternal questions of Christianity through the medium of a raucous talk show led by an unwilling and doubtful host, while being performed as an opera. It’s a tall order, but the musical skill and oh-no-they-didn’t cleverness throughout easily cover for some of the the less developed ideas.

It bears repeating, this cast (and the casting) is fantastic. It’s hard to single out any particular performances, each role was remarkably strong in voice and character. I’ll make a special shout out to the ensemble, as there were clearly no slouches in there. I’m hard pressed to think of a production with a finer chorus. (A little disclaimer, I was very much hoping to be involved in this production, but tech week was scheduled during my Burning Man obligations, so it wasn’t a possibility. Seeing the resulting production, it’s clear that they did just fine without me.)

This show is a tour de force for a small company that is firing on all cylinders. Coming off a string of successful and ambitious productions (Tommy and Rocky Horror Picture Show), Ray of Light is reliably presenting great musical theater in San Francisco, and that’s no small feat.

Be warned, this production is selling out, and it should definitely be seen, so plan accordingly.