Jerry Springer: The Opera
The Moore, 1932 Second Ave., 877-784-4849, stgpresents.org. $17.50. 7:30 p.m. Thurs.–Sat., 2 & 6:30 p.m. Sun. Ends Jan. 26.
In the spirit of this show, I’ll start with my own confession: I was a lot more impressed with The Book of Mormon before I saw Jerry Springer: The Opera, which anticipates by eight or so years the identical combination of bouncy exuberance and relentless vulgarity—sexual, scatological, religious, you name it—that made Mormon such a hit for the South Park guys. Springer is rawer, funnier, more inventive, and hits harder; British creators Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas aim less at the talk-show host and trash TV than at the country that made him a star.
None of this is subtle, mind you; Americans “eat, excrete, and watch TV,” one chorus tells us. And just as you might start to feel smugly above it all (of course other people watched that garbage, not me), they hit us with “With or without Jerry’s show, we’d all end up the same . . . he merely holds a mirror to it.” The show’s not as preachy as that makes it sound, though, making room among the in-your-face camp (tap-dancing Klansmen) for the emotional sucker punch of “I Just Wanna Dance,” which leapt out of the show to become a disco-remixed Pride anthem. Actually being moved was the last thing I expected by this point, but Lindsey Larson as aspiring pole-dancer Shawntel sells the shit out of it.
Thomas’ score whiplashes from Handel-by-way-of-Kurt Weill to ’70s cheese, bargain-basement Marvin Hamlisch; it’d be nearly as funny if not a word were sung. Act 1 is a sendup of a typical Springer episode; in the less-focused Act 2, Jerry’s sent to Hell to emcee a showdown between good and evil. Brandon Felker dials it down as Jerry, all the better to skewer the bland, paternalistic benignity of his hosting style, the ridiculous pretense that his show was therapeutic rather than exploitative. And, of course, so as not to upstage the freak parade. Among the fearless and intensely hard-working Balagan Theatre ensemble, directed by Shawn Belyea, the standout in what-the-fuck audaciousness is Kevin Douglass, double-cast as (take a deep breath) Jesus Christ and a diaper fetishist.
In a show whose curveballs never let the audience get complacent, the biggest surprise comes last. The finale is built on Jerry’s traditional sign-off, “Take care of yourselves . . . and each other”—a genuinely redemptive moment of decency, or calculated smarm posing as one? Jerry Springer, startlingly, sets cynicism aside and takes the host’s side. If it sounds like easy sentiment, a pulled punch, it’s the opposite, the ultimate fuck-you. Paramount among the objects of Lee and Thomas’ contempt—including Americans’ inability to use verb tenses correctly—is our tendency to hold others responsible for our idiocy. So lighten up on Jerry; he’s not to blame. He didn’t make his guests stupid, or make them be on his show—or make you watch.