Review: JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA. Music by Richard Thomas. Book & Lyrics by Stewart Lee & Richard Thomas. Produced by Balagan Theatre and Seattle Theatre Group. Directed by Shawn Belyea. Musical Direction by Nathan Young. Choreography by Kathryn Van Meter. With Brendan Felker, Sean Nelson, Megan Chenovick, Evan Woltz, Jennifer Bromagen, Kevin Douglass, Rachel DeShon. Now through January 26, 2014 at The Moore Theatre.
British people created Balagan and Seattle Theatre Group’s current production of JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA and it shows. It’s a sniggering look/exposé at a tacky American pop culture phenomenon that wants to have its spotted dick and eat it, too. JS:TO wants us to gasp at the tacky horror show known as daytime trash tv talk show and how it exploits both subjects and the audience that tunes in to witness the depravities of trashy people fighting over relationships, paternity suits and trailer court community property. Yet, the material is as exploitative as the subject it struggles to parody. It’s shining proof it’s difficult to parody something that’s already a parody to start with. JS:TO isn’t that shocking; its first act is essentially a super sized version of an actual Springer show, with a bisexual love quadrangle and a diaper wearing poo poo fetishist at the heart of it. It’s also ironic that the British creators of JS:TO are mocking the tawdriness of America…considering the Brits invented Tabloid Journalism complete with cheeky nude birds on Page Six…
But, It’s the last act of SPRINGER that has enraged some religious groups with the character of Jerry Springer himself descending to Hell and presiding over a trial that features Jesus, God and Satan going at it because Satan “wants a apology!” from Jesus…for some lame reason. (No, it doesn’t really make much sense…) But, the problem with this material is that it’s always too self-aware of how “naughty” and “shocking” it’s supposed to be. Any mature adult who’s watched SNL sketches or South Park isn’t going to be seeing anything that new, naughty or even creative. Despite the fact JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA was both a commercial and critical success in the UK; it rather unbelievably won the prestigious Olivier for Best New Musical, this show isn’t that profound with its satire or that edgy with its statement. Frankly, it’s a subpar South Park episode.
And, it’s also a show that crosses over into misogyny and homophobia on a consistent basis equating perversion with same-sex love. At times, this material can be witty but it can also be as exploitative and obnoxious as the original show it’s trying to spoof. If you’re very thin skinned about the use of “Bitches”, “Homos”, “Faggots”, “Chicks With Dicks” and “Dykes” in everyday language, this might not be the show for you. Also: if poo poo humor makes you lose your lunch, you probably need to stay away.
That being said, some of the music in JS:TO has its charms…it can be a clever spoof of the operatic form with some spot on lyrics and a challenging score. But, that score demands a talented cast who can sing. Fortunately, the principal women of Balagan’s production: Megan Chenovick (Peaches/Baby Jane); Jennifer Bromagen (Zandra/Mary); Rachel DeShon (Andrea/Archangel) and Lindsey Larson (Shawntel/Eve) have the vocal chops to tackle this challenging score and strong comedic skills to handle the jokes. They’re the primary acting asset of JS:TO.
Sadly, that can’t be said for the men, who all falter to one degree or the other. None of the main men who sing lead roles: Evan Woltz, Bo Mellinger, Kevin Douglass, Brian Lange and especially co-lead Sean Nelson who plays Satan, have strong enough vocal talents to play/sing these roles. (And, it should be noted that these are talented actors who have excelled in other work; this score requires actor/singers with more classical skills.) The women vastly outshine the men in this regard. Acting wise, the gents are ok, though Mr. Nelson, who’s best known as a Seattle musician with bands like Harvey Danger, probably should stick with his day job…both the singing and the comedy fall frequently flat.
As for Brandon Felker as Jerry Springer, he’s funny enough and he doesn’t have a singing role, but the actor seems miscast. He never FEELS like Jerry Springer. And, to be fair to the actor, the role isn’t particularly well written. Mr. Felker has little to play with in the first act and is mainly required to be panicky in the second. The title role in the show is actually kind of a meh character….he could use a rewrite. And, we won’t even get into why a show about a Jewish man deals with a very Christian concept of Hell…
We’re once again back at the historic and newly remodeled Moore Theatre in downtown Seattle, and designwise, it’s actually a huge step up for Balagan, a theater company that I’ve scolded in the past for sloppy/cheap design and tech work. The set, a reproduction of the actual Springer talk show set, is designed by Phillip Lienau and it’s smartly executed with lots of witty touches added once we descend into Hell. Ahren Buhmann’s lighting design is on the mark and Carmen Olmedo’s costumes are appropriately trashy and bizarre. Even the sound is somewhat better than usual despite the horrid acoustics at The Moore; props to sound person Brent Warwick for that.
Shawn Belyea does a fine job of directing this uneven material and Nathan Young’s musical direction is a highlight as is Kathryn Van Meter’s wry choreography (aided by Ryan Conlin’s frequent “fight” choreography for the many battle scenes on the Springer set…)
The excellent chorus/ensemble of JS:TO is also a highlight, featuring as the rabble rousing audience in the first act and the cretinous denizens of Hell in the second, though the two are fairly interchangeable. Both the singing and the acting are on the mark for this crowd of trashmongers.
The production for JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA is a strong one…up to a point. The only things holding this show back, would be the weakness of the men and the tawdry and not that brilliant nature of the material itself. Personally, Parker/Stone have created far funnier versions of Hell on SOUTH PARK featuring Satan and Saddam Hussein…”I Can Change” and “Up There” are two of the funniest Hell based songs in musical comedy. Go rent SOUTH PARK: BIGGER, LONGER, UNCUT for funnier Satanist based musical humor.