Theater review by Adam Feldman
“This is my Jerry Springer moment,” sings Baby Jane (the touching Jill Paice), a grown woman dressed as a little girl with a bubble wand. “So dip me in chocolate / And throw me to the lesbians.” Baby Jane is one of several wacky guests on Springer’s infamous talk show in the first part of Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s outrageous and exuberant high-low extravaganza Jerry Springer—The Opera, which finally gets a proper moment of its own at the New Group, 15 years after its London debut. Played by a mellow Terrence Mann, Springer himself doesn’t sing much, though he now has an Act Two opener; the musical gives most of its voice to outsiders, in styles ranging from highfalutin baroque compositions—at one point, the f-word is melismatically stretched to sit on some 200 notes—to disco and Busby Berkeley glamour.
After splashing in fabulous mud, Jerry Springer—The Opera goes to Hell in its second half—literally—as Satan himself (a slick and active Will Swenson) forces Springer to stage an episode with figures from the Bible. Two trashy guests from the first act (Nathaniel Hackmann and the vocally exceptional Tiffany Mann) become a bickering Adam and Eve; a diaper-wearing guest (Justin Keyes) is transfigured into a loincloth-clad Jesus, with a nagging mother Mary (Jennifer Allen); and a philanderer (the impressive tenor Luke Grooms) returns as God. Under John Rando’s direction, the energy never flags, and the intimate thrust-stage setup sucks you into the talk-show-audience mob even as it helps you appreciate their glorious voices. Its theology may not be deep, but beneath its sublime-to-ridiculous jokes, Jerry Springer—The Opera is onto something about reality-show culture and the poignancy behind its debased participants—which more or less includes all of us now. Oh, the absurdity! But oh, the humanity.
The New Group (Off Broadway). Music and lyrics by Richard Thomas. Book and additional lyrics by Stewart Lee and Thomas. Directed by John Rando. With Terrence Mann, Will Swenson, Jill Paice. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission.
[Note: Starting March 13, the role of Jerry Springer is performed by Matt McGarth.]