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Jerry Springer: The Opera
Music & lyrics by Richard Thomas; book & additional lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas
Directed by John Rando; choreographed by Chris Bailey
Performances through April 1, 2018
Will Swenson and Terrence Mann in Jerry Springer: The Opera (photo: Monique Carboni)
There might not be an easier pop-culture target than The Jerry Springer Show, that televised train wreck that ruled the syndicated airwaves in the ‘90s with a bedraggled parade of clueless clods, trailer-trashy inbreds and other low-rent guests which its audience—both in the studio and at home—laughed at knowingly and groaningly. That there was often a battle royale between guests (broken up by Jerry’s goons) only added to its guilty-pleasure quotient.
So to make a parody called Jerry Springer: The Opera is the height of obviousness—and pointlessness. To marry lowbrow with (supposed) highbrow, composer-lyricist Richard Thomas and lyricist Stewart Lee went all in: lines like “What the fuck, what the fuck, what the fucking fuck?” are intoned by an angelic-sounding chorus, literally mating the sacred and the profane. And having Jerry get shot during one of his shows, descend into a hellish purgatory where he’s met by Satan and told to do a show for Satan’s benefit to avoid an eternity of hellfire, is an idea as unoriginal as it is awful.
Right from the beginning, non-stop cursing is set to heavenly music (the songs are listenable but blandly opera-lite) and the show devolves into self-satisfied nastiness, with an already riled-up audience egged on by Jerry’s crazed warm-up man, as the host himself shepherds the sordid enterprise.
A little of this goes a very long way: the first act comprises Springer Show guests with hidden secrets like a husband who wears diapers and admits to his wife that taking a shit turns him on, or a plain wife who secretly wants to be a pole dancer. Actual episodes of The Jerry Springer Show didn’t put on airs about such people, instead taking them at face value. Here, condescension is present from the start, and a repetitive first act ends rather desperately with a Ku Klux Klan dance number done better (and funnier) by Mel Brooks’ Nazis in The Producers.
The second act, in which Satan demands an apology for being tossed out of paradise, leading to appearances by Jesus, Mary and even God Almighty, might be blasphemous to some, but it’s sophomoric and juvenile to most, never approaching the sinful satire it aims for, instead lazily relying on its one-note, single-joke conceit to stretch itself past the two-hour mark.
In 2003 when this premiered—or 2008, when it was performed at Carnegie Hall—Jerry Springer: The Opera might have seemed daring or prescient. But now—in a world dominated by a benighted and dangerous simpleton in the White House—the show has been outstripped by reality.
John Rando’s smart staging features Derek McLane’s typically superior set, which cleverly bleeds into the theater itself for some semi-audience participation. Effortlessly playing multiple roles is a dazzling cast of 18, whose voices soar into the stratosphere.
While Terrence Mann’s Jerry (a largely non-singing role, with a forgettable ballad thrown in) makes Springer more than just a caricatured ringmaster, Will Swenson, as Jerry’s Warm-Up Man and Satan, is having so much wild-eyed fun—he looks unsettlingly like Charles Manson, maniacal stare and all—that it’s easy to go along for the ride, bumpy as it ultimately is.
The New Group, Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street, New York, NY
Blu-rays of the Week
Antony and Cleopatra
One of Shakespeare’s most complex and least-produced plays is also one of his greatest, and Iqbal Khan’s staging at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-upon-Avon catches a good portion of its denseness, at least.
Although Antony Byrne’s lackadaisical Antony disappoints, Josette Simon makes a lively and sympathetic Cleopatra, with a chilling death-by-asp scene; also noteworthy is Laura Mvula’s haunting music. Hi-def video and audio are first-rate; extras are Khan’s commentary and interviews with Khan, Simon, Byrne and Mvula.
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This inferior follow-up does have its moments, but those are few and far between compared to the original; there’s also a solid hi-def transfer, while the extras include new interviews with the director, writer, and visual effects and makeup creators.
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In this weirdly intriguing 1976 B-movie, a loony surgeon remakes a shattered woman’s face into that of his missing daughter’s, hoping she’ll help him inherit millions—a plan that works until his daughter suddenly returns. Director John Grissmer takes a risible story and keeps it percolating, helped immeasurably by a remarkable pair of performances from Judith Chapman as the daughter and the woman with her face.
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Tell Them We Are Rising—The Story of Black Colleges and Universities
In this telling 85-minute documentary that recounts a century and a half of black institutions of higher learning in the U.S. (which began appearing prior to the Civil War), director-writer-producer Stanley Nelson—just as he did with his incisive Freedom Riders—finds many voices, then and now, for a bracing and important history lesson.
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Written by Sarah Burgess; directed by Thomas Kail
Aya Cash and Zach Grenier in Kings (photo: Joan Marcus)
In Sarah Burgess’s amusing if paper-thin Kings, Lauren and Kate are lobbyists and friends who have worked for long-time Senator—and likely presidential candidate—John McDowell, a veteran Texas Republican. But gumming up the works is Representative Sydney Millsap, an up-and-coming Texan sparkplug who, since she’s black, may well be the party’s—and the country’s—future, if she can focus her energy in the right direction and not ruffle so many feathers.
Sydney instead decides to use the political capital she gained by voting for a carried interest bill opposed by the financial lobby to challenge elder statesman John for his Senate seat, throwing his path to the White House into doubt. After some initial reluctance, Kate decides to join Sydney’s campaign, causing a rift with Lauren, while also causing Kate to question her own political choices and beliefs.
Burgess entertainingly shows how the interactions of lobbyists and those they work with in Congress are inextricably intertwined, and lip service is paid to Kate’s decision to follow her heart instead of her head and work for Sydney’s campaign, but there aren’t many well-reasoned arguments here. In their stead is a lot of lively dialogue, which also helps to offset labored jokes about, for instance, the restaurant chain Chili’s and its ultra-large margaritas.
The appealing performers—Gillian Jacobs (Kate), Aya Cash (Lauren), Eisa Davis (Sydney) and Zach Grenier (John)—bat Burgess’s lines around like expert tennis players, with Grenier providing an hilarious caricature of an entrenched politician oozing smugness from his very pores. But even Thomas Kail’s savvy direction and Anna Louizos’ equally smart set design can’t disguise the fact that Kings is a sitcom masquerading as something more substantial.
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, New York, NY
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