Jerry Agonistes

21. September, 2010 Theater No comments


Show #97: Jerry Springer the Opera, Ray of Light Theatre, September 17.

Timitio Artusio and Jordan Best. Photo by Ben Krantz Studio


By Sam Hurwitt

It’s strange that something as silly as Jerry Springer the Opera could have ignited protests and the threat of criminal charges—not for slander or copyright infringement but for blasphemy, which is apparently the sort of thing you can still be prosecuted for in the UK in the 21st century. Much like The Jerry Springer Show that inspired it, Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s operatic homage certainly does revel in its own offensiveness, whether it’s the catchy refrain “what the fucking fucking fuck?” or an adult baby fetishist singing about getting sexual pleasure from crapping his pants—and then the same guy later playing Jesus as pretty much the same character. But the bible-banging tumult didn’t stop the original 2003 London production from becoming a smash hit and winning an Olivier Award for best musical.

Although it dabbles in more mainstream fare as well, San Francisco’s Ray of Light Theatre has an affinity for naughty musicals from Bat Boy to The Who’s Tommy—and tends to do a pretty fantastic job with them—so it seems appropriate that ROLT’s rolling out the West Coast premiere of Jerry Springer the Opera.

It’s a huge undertaking, with a mammoth cast of 41 crammed onto the Victoria Theatre stage, between Jerry’s guests and the studio audience that doubles as a chorus in a marvelous array of sleazy outfits by Margaret Whitaker (a friend of mine, I should say in the spirit of full disclosure). It’s probably for the best that Maya Linke’s set design keeps it simple, from a large brick wall with “JERRY SPRINGER” stenciled on it to a vision of Hell that looks like a broken-down construction site under red lights.

While the other roles are entirely sung (aside from a brief aside from Keith Haddock as faithful security chief Steve), Jerry is an entirely speaking role and never sings. Patrick Michael Dukeman is made up well to look like Jerry and does a remarkably good Springer impression, even if it sometimes wavers into Woody Allen territory. He’s particularly good at capturing Springer’s likeable, unflappable stage persona, contrasted with more cynical and hard-edged backstage moments.

The large ensemble sets the tone at the very beginning, singing things like “I used to be a lap-dancing pre-operative transsexual, a chick with a dick” in reverent choral tones. “I hope there’ll be some fighting,” one guy pipes up, causing everyone else to sing “Of course there’ll be some fighting, you stupid asshole.”

Of course there will. Not only is Jerry’s talk show set up for conflict, with people being informed of their significant others’ affairs onscreen and immediately being confronted by the people they’re sleeping with, but the people who appear on the show thrive on conflict, eating it up when the audience yells insults at them. Steve Hess reveals his various infidelities with relish as the balding, sweet-’stached sleazeball Dwight, and Tracy Camp’s sudden shift from demure devotion to livid fury as his fiancée Peaches is hilarious. Jordan Best is a sassy, swaggering delight with a stunning voice as her unrepentant skank of a best friend, Zandra, and Timito Artusio gives a priceless hot-mess performance as rubbish drag queen Tremont.

Chris Yorro’s gaping smile as the sweet but eerily cheery Montel has a marvelous payoff when he reveals himself to be the aforementioned diaper aficionado, accompanied by Rebecca Pingree as cutesy-wootsy Baby Jane singing the immortal song “Mama Gimmee Smack on the Asshole.” Mia Freyvecind as Montel’s bewildered girlfriend Andrea gets a surreptitiously wholesome moment with her touching plaint “I Wanna Sing Something Beautiful,” so of course she’s dragged off by security.

The third segment is much less outrageous, with plus-sized aspiring pole dancer Shawntel (powerfully belting Jessica Coker), her abusive husband Chucky (a glowering Manuel Caneri) and her pious mother Irene (operatically forceful Best), but the KKK can-can kick line at the end makes up for it.

Jonathan Reisfeld is delightfully smarmy as Jerry’s eager-to-please, much berated warm-up artist Jonathan, and J. Conrad Frank (better known as drag diva Katya Smirnoff-Skyy) has an amusing cameo as Jerry’s much-suppressed inner valkyrie, the operatic version of Jiminy Cricket.

The second act takes Jerry to Hell, because it is an opera after all, and you almost feel cheated if you don’t go to Hell in an opera. A macabre sequence in which he finds out the grisly fates of his guests from the first act goes on a little long but also makes a valuable point, because all the onstage drama of shows like Springer’s really has led to serious offstage consequences in the past. But it really takes fire when Jerry’s forced to do a version of his show in Hell featuring Satan and Jesus and other surprise biblical guests. Not only are all of them played by the same actors as the guests we met before, but much of the fun comes from them being more or less the same characters.

There’s also a horde of ghoulish nurses, which is funny only because for some reason unearthly nurses have been coming up a lot lately, between Shotgun Players’ In the Wound and California Shakespeare Theater’s Macbeth.

Director M. Graham Smith does a terrific job wrangling the large cast and keeping the energy high throughout the two-and-a-half hour production, which is that long partly because of 30-minute intermission to maximize access to the Victoria’s tiny restrooms. Overseen by music director Ben Prince, who leads a live eight-piece orchestra, the singing is superb, impressively so given the stylistic mix of bits of rock, gospel, jazz, Broadway, cabaret and straight-up opera.

Final thought: The show does portray Springer as a tongue-in-cheek religious figure, from the opening candle-carrying processional chanting his name to Jerry getting his own reprise of God’s lament at the end. But it’s hard to believe that anyone took the sacrilegious stuff seriously.  It’s in the same spirit as all the cussing (and hooboy is it a potty-mouthed show) and doody jokes. The constant onslaught of naughtiness can get wearying after a while—obscenity’s never been an issue for me one way or another aside from watching my language when I’m writing for a “family paper,” but this is the first time I’ve really understood my grandmother’s complaint about people thinking they need to cuss to be funny. But it’s hard to begrudge the show for getting gratuitous, because when you’re talking about Jerry Springer the Opera, going overboard is just the beginning.

Jerry Springer the Opera plays through October 16 at the Victoria Theatre, 2961 16th St., San Francisco.


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