The wildest show in town is surely “Jerry Springer—The Opera,” which uproariously nails the coarse Springer TV programs, still being broadcast. As Springer’s low-life guest conflicts are almost satirical themselves, it is hard to go a step further. But the creators of the pseudo-opera format have accomplished that feat by burgeoning the on-stage doings into non-stop hilarity, at least in the first act.
I saw the show in 2004 when it was done in London, and while it now has essentially the same approach, it has been vastly improved by the staging set-up in this presentation by The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center. The action is more intimate with the audience on three sides of the stage and the first rows of the side sections occupied by motley-looking cast members who jump up to interact with the spectators. Thus the imitated shouts of “Jerry, Jerry” pep up the audience and have the effect of making us feel close to the mayhem.
This is not for anyone who recoils at profanity and vulgar ideas. No bleeping out words here. An excellent Terrence Mann as host Jerry, looking, sounding and acting like the real Jerry Springer, parades guests who have a secret to reveal, such as sexual cheating (no words minced) with breakout fighting as encouraged on the real Springer broadcasts. There is also, for example, the song “Diaper Man,” sung on the night I saw the show by a very funny Brandon Contreras in the role of Montel, usually played by Justin Keyes. Montel confesses that he wants to be a baby, strips to his diapers and sings about how he wants to “s—t in my pants.”
The “opera” has music and lyrics by Richard Thomas, with book and additional lyrics by Stewart Lee and Thomas; choreography by Chris Bailey; a studio-like set design by Derek McLane and broadly colorful costume design by Sarah Laux. John Rando has directed with the emphasis on outrageousness and shock and awe.
The cast is blessed with lusty singing voices, male and female. A prime example is when beefy Tiffany Mann as the rear-wiggling Shawntel confesses her desire to be a pole dancer, provides an illustration and wonderfully belts her big number “I Just Wanna Dance.” The power of her voice and personality combined to elicit audience cheers when I attended.
At one point the ensemble, appearing in required white sheets and hoods sings and dances to “This Is My KKK Moment,“ which comes across as a reminder of the deliberately tasteless satirical “Springtime for Hitler” in “The Producers.”
Would that the second act worked as well as the first act. After Springer is shot at the end of the first, the second descends into a cockamamie plot of Springer hovering between heaven and hell, with Satan being played by Will Swenson, who doubles as the show’s amusing and busy Warmup Man. The book becomes plodding rather than continuing along the lines of the confessions that generated so much laughter in Act One.
Even so, the level of the acting and singing is so spirited that the cast members still continue to score with the audience and the numbers are geared to energize the show’s mayhem. I would have preferred two first acts, and that was also the case when I saw the show in London all that time ago. But if one can’t have everything, taken as a whole “Jerry Springer—The Opera” offers one unusually bawdy, entertaining and satirically on-target good time. At the Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street. Phone: 212-244-2579. Reviewed February 26, 2018. .