The Playgoer: REVIEW: Jerry Springer The Opera (at Chicago's Bailiwick, 2007)

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

REVIEW: Jerry Springer The Opera (at Chicago's Bailiwick, 2007)

Having missed the 2-night only concert version of Jerry Springer: The Opera at Carnegie Hall (lauded by Brantley today), I might as well finally share some notes and reflections on the show as I saw it at Chicago's Bailiwick Rep last summer--which was actually the US premiere, if you can believe it. Perhaps because it's essentially a non-Equity company, the creators felt comfortable giving them the rights while reserving "professional" rights for NYC.

In any case, count me a fan of this show. And here's why:

It took a nonequity company way “off-Loop” on the north side of Chicago to give American audiences a chance to see “Jerry Springer: The Opera.” A hit London musical on an (obviously) American subject, written by an American/British team, it is mysteriously not coming soon to a theatre near New York. After persistent protests in the UK by Christian groups to both the stage production and tv broadcasts (apparently the most US-style coordinated religious-right boycott action yet seen there) it’s hard not to wonder if the cloud of such controversy is keeping American producers and theatre companies away from the piece.

Well we’ve been robbed. “Springer” is certainly the most entertaining and even the cleverest and most insightful piece of popular theatre I’ve seen all year. As well as the most accessible piece of elitist theatre. Either way, there is nothing “guilty” about its pleasures.

Let’s start with the “opera” part. (And in Chicago--where the real Springer tapes his tv show-- you better! Just saying you’re seeing “Springer” here can get you a variety of responses.) Without getting into meaningless debates over “is it an opera or is it a musical”, the important thing is it’s operatic in its mode. Or, I should say, classical, even Baroque. Far from well-worn mock-opera territory of Verdi or Wagner (no “Kill da wabbit” stuff here), he aims straight at the core of the canon of sacred vocal scores—Handel and Bach. Which means, don’t try Richard Thomas’ score at home, it’s not for beginners. All the more reason the Bailiwick Theatre’s production is so impressive, enlisting a cast of over twenty young trained voices.

To give you a further idea, the show might as well be called something like “The Passion of the Jerry” since—as a mock-oratorio—its biggest joke is not trailer-trash confrontations but out and out theology. The running chorus of “Jerry Eleison”—as in Krie Eleison, of course—being the tip-off. (And yes, that translates as “Jerry Have Mercy.” Love it.) Putting Dante in reverse, Jerry starts out in heaven (i.e. TV star of his own show) and descends into hell. Arriving below, he is summoned to host the ultimate standoff: Jesus vs. Satan. (In this and many ways, the show is a super-literate South Park episode.) After a heavy dose of Milton-esque tropes, the episode degerates (or, in fact, culminates) in a 10-minute volley of “Fuck you’s” all sung as some “dueling appoggiaturas” contest between the two mighty forces. (Imagine “Fuuu-ahhhh-uhhh-ahhh-k…Yew-ewewewewew” as set by Moteverdi.)

Again, the thrill of “Springer” (and for some its turn-ff) is the constant juxtaposition of such musical and theological vocabulary against songs like, “Mommy give me smack on the asshole!” (Sung about a Springer guest’s spank-fetish.) Or watching a grown man in a diaper relish in his fecophiliac sexual fantasies. But of course, this is the material of the real “Jerry Springer” itself. My favorite such number is “I Just Want to Fucking Dance” sung by a zaftig housewife, whose husband derides her for being too fat to strip. When she bursts into this triumphant anthem (a delicious parody and celebration of the classic musical’s “I Want” song) it does so many wonderful things. It satirizes musicals as well as trash tv, as well as strip clubs—all prominent elements in our current popular entertainment. And it also frankly and quite unironically elevates the dream of the common man/woman for self-expression. Replete with Gilbert & Sullivan choral cadences (“SHE just wants to fucking dance….”) it’s a rousing and, when sung well, even moving(!) song.

So far from some elitist sneer at pop culture, “Springer the Opera” is ultimately a truly democratic piece. If anything it’s the exploitation of common people (by Jerry, by his handlers) that is put on trial. For the guests, they only long for their “Jerry Springer Moment”—a phrase introduced in a lovely lilting melody almost out of a Jerome Kern Princess-Musical. (“This is/ my Jerry Springer moment/….) Such brilliant pastiche, of course, is another delight of the show for the musically inclined.

I must say I don’t really consider this a “musical” since it does not work within any established form of the American Musical. It’s too fantastical and jaded for Rodgers and Hammerstein, too thematically cohesive for a “revue.” Musically it’s more classically grounded than Broadway, though there are some soul, country, and R&B numbers.

If I had to classify it I’d call it an extended operatic--or operetta--parody.

Now what could be controversial about a such a fun heathenish show? Interesting that Brantley references protesters even outside this Carnegie Hall concert version. The show started getting picketed in the UK when Christian groups heard about the irreverent Jesus parts and smelled a political football (if you can excuse the unsavory mixed metaphor). So you can bet word has crossed the Atlantic to the “faithful” here, who will be out in force against any future incarnation. Although, I’m happy to report that at the performance in Chicago I saw at least…nothing. And Chicago is a kinda Catholic town, if you haven’t heard. Maybe it was ignored for being, in their context, Off Broadway. (No cameras, no protests.)

Yes, a show that has a chorus greet the arrival of the Virgin Mary on the Jerry Springer show with the cry “Raped By An Angel!” (as in the “titles” that typically appear below victim-guests’ names) is going to piss some people off. But I doubt there is a popular theatre piece more deeply versed in the scriptures and belief than “Jerry Springer The Opera.” As always with these phony-controversies, the artwork in question is far more articulate and knowledgeable about religion than the so-called pious protesters.

Correction: Stupid Me, I forgot when writing so much about how "operatic" this is, that it's actually called "Jerry Springer The Opera!" not "The Musical." Apologies. So this post has now been emended.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Two minor things:

The Baliwick is considered an off-loop theatre, not a "way off-loop" theatre. Based on geography alone, it is no more or less off-loop than Victory Gardens. A "way off-loop" theatre might be The Side Project up on Jarvis (locaton), or even the NeoFuturists, (type of shows).

Claiming a non-Equity show to be unprofessional in Chicago can be the grounds for quite an argument, as can be seen here:
and here:

A lot of Chicago has forgotten about Jerry, as his show already "peaked" as it were... That may be why any response has been minimal here.