Very few people admit to watching the Jerry Springer Show, which is currently enjoying its 23rd year on the air. Many people, however, will gleefully admit to watching New Line Theatre's production of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Director Scott Miller's take on the lowbrow show lives up to the promise in both halves of its name. There are Springer's startling revelations, dirty secrets and white-trash fights, but in the play, this human misery is actually a battle for the soul of mankind played out across Earth and Hell (with a special guest appearance from God). Richard Wagner himself would high-five Springer after witnessing the audacity of this production, which is both hilarious and surprising in its gravity.
Stewart Lee (book) and Richard Thomas (music) establish their Springer bona fides in Act One. Jerry's audience shows up to the familiar set — brick wall and easily knocked over chairs — eager for the chaos to commence. In short order we see Jerry (Keith Thompson) entice an engaged man to admit to cheating with several people, cringe as a woman discovers her boyfriend has a baby fetish and witness another woman live out her dream of being a pole dancer.
Thompson has Jerry's amused half-smile and ability to disappear into the woodwork when the shit starts flying, but he doesn't really get to shine until he's been shot and dragged down to Hell. There, he must host his show with God and Satan as guests. If Jerry doesn't get Satan an apology for being kicked out of Heaven, his life is forfeit. These are surprisingly high stakes for a Springer episode, if only because Jerry finally has something to lose.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the show is the music. Thomas' score ranges from the shockingly beautiful opening song "Overtly-ture" and its equally shocking lyrics ("I was jilted by a lesbian dwarf/she gave good head/Slurp! Slurp!") to the joyous celebration of unashamed sexuality, "Mama Gimmee Smack on the Asshole." The entire production is sung through, except for Jerry's parts, which are spoken. The bulk of the score is sinewy and stabbing, a complex network of point and counterpoint that creates constant tension, emulating the atmosphere of a typical Springer episode. Judging by the sweat and intense facial expressions made by bandleader Jeffery Richard Carter, it's a mentally demanding score — and yet the New Line band makes it swing.
The cast of twenty doesn't waste their efforts, either.
"It's easy to occupy the moral high ground. It's much more difficult to confidently occupy the moral low ground," Jerry tells his audience in the first act, and it's on the low grounds of Hell that Thompson and the show as a whole flourishes. Jerry is no longer the professionally detached ringmaster but an active participant, trying to establish rapprochement between his guests Satan (Matt Pentecost) and God (Zachary Allen Farmer). Pentecost's Satan is a leering thug in cape and horns, until he sings "Once in Happy Realms of Light," which reveals him as a tragic Miltonic figure yearning for his old place in Heaven. Farmer's God, wearing golf-casual, sings of the burden of omnipotence in "It Ain't Easy Being Me" ("So many voices, making all the wrong choices/then turn around and blame me").
These contradictions in character are the essence of the show, and Jerry is the mirror that reflects this essential conflict back at us for one hour a day, five days a week. If Jerry were to wrap this up with a final thought, he might say, "Scott Miller embraces both the scatological and the philosophical elements of the show, weaving them together into a unified whole that entertains and enlightens in equal measure."
Jerry Springer: The Opera Through March 28 at the Washington University South Campus Theatre (6501 Clayton Road, Richmond Heights). Call 314-534-1111 or visit www.newlinetheatre.com.