Grapevine — Is there is anything that generates more controversy than Jerry Springer? (OK, ask that question 15 years ago.) What about Jerry Springer: The Opera? When the show opened in London’s West End in 2003, it ended up winning four Laurence Olivier Awards, including Best New Musical. It also garnered international attention for its raunchiness and even landed a High Court case with accusations of blasphemy when it was broadcast on British TV in 2005.
It is a real opera, if you define it as mostly sung throughout, including dialogue (musicals can do that too). As such, Jerry Springer: The Opera requires some fine voices and excellent musicianship. Richard Thomas’ music parodies composers from Bach and Handel to Sondheim and Lloyd Webber. The singers are pushed to the very top of their range multiple times, harmonies are complex, and the singers' lines are frequently contrapuntal.
In the show’s area premiere at Grapevine’s Ohlook Performing Arts Center, where the show runs in the late-night slot through Aug. 1 (11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays), most of the performers do a fine vocal job, with some highly trained singers in the mix. A reduced orchestra, consisting of music director Jesse Fry (keyboards), Michael Dill (reed synthesizer) and Ben Pham (percussion), does a terrific job, even if the small space creates some sound balance issues.
We might need some new words to properly describe the show itself. Jerry Springer: The Opera sails right past words like “scandalous,” “blasphemous,” and “profane.” Estimates for the number of profanities in the show range from a physically impossible 8,000 (which would require multiple obscenities in every second) to the actual count by Stewart Lee, who co-wrote the book and lyrics with Thomas, of a modest 174. Sexual perversities and religious figures (Satan, Jesus, Mary, Adam, Eve and even God) abound.
All this makes for great fun, perhaps a guilty pleasure for some, that leaves no moralizing shibboleth or societal taboo standing. And this being a British show, scatological jokes abound. But, with Alex Heika’s over-the-top direction, the excellently portrayed ridiculous characters and their bizarre sexual escapades creates much did he just say that? hilarity.
The extravagantly coiffed Mason King plays Springer to the hilt of gaudiness, and considering he’s only 17, his Springer impression is pretty dead on. This is also the only non-singing role.
Springer was always the ringleader of the chaos around him, letting loose his outrageous guests to fight out their many-layered entanglements, which often led to chair tossing. His warm-up man Jonathan, played with bravura by John Wenzel, does all the needling needed to get the fireworks going.
The first situation involves Dwight (played with open-shirted, gold-chained swagger by David Lewis). He is engaged to Peaches (Kristin Spires, one of the best voices in the show) but is having an affair with her best friend Zandra (played with sizzling sex by Lacey Dangerstone). She is everything Peaches isn’t and never could be. But wait, there’s more. He is also seeing pre-op transsexual Tremont (flauntingly played by rail-thin TJ Mundell-Patterson). Tyler Cochran as Steve Wilkos, head of security, separates the warring recipients with the resignation of a man who has done this job for too long (it would have been better had Cochran shaved his head like the real Wilkos).
Next up is Montel, played by baby-faced Jonathan Hardin, who has a secret to tell Andrea (Sarah Dickerson, who has a lovely voice), his unlikely intended. He wants to be her “baby”—and that’s not meant to be a nickname. His secret, like all the others, is layered. Revealing the rest of it gives him a solo song that is, perhaps, unique in the repertoire. The lyrics reveal he likes to soil his pants—talk about an obvious choice for auditions.
Next, Shawntel (voluptuous Stephanie Felton), wants to be a pole dancer and her redneck boyfriend Chucky (a funny Jakeb Lowery), is dead set against it—even though he frequents the same strip joint. Felton stuns the audience with a high ballet-style leg raise and slap-the-floor splits at the end of one of the show’s best songs, “I Just Wanna Dance.”
All the actors reappear in the second act, this time playing the religious figures. You see, Springer was shot at the end of act one, and has descended into purgatory. He was brought there by Satan to use his gift for solving intractable differences between warring parties. Wenzel makes a superslick conman of a Satan and God himself is portrayed as a Hugh Hefner wannabe (by Lewis).
Interesting. Springer’s job is to solve the ongoing difference of opinion between Good and Evil? Talk about a sticky wicket! The others brought in to testify are the aforementioned religious figures played with wildly exaggerated characterizations. A spoiler about how it all works out will not appear here.
The TV studio audience, as the chorus, has such a major role in the show that they were singled out for a supporting role Olivier Award. The players in this production are award-worthy as well. Big kudos to Brittany Adelstein, Aleksei Barerra, Trey Cardona, Dixie Carrol, Chelsea Grosskopf, Barbara Laurean, Kaycee Murto, Jason Solis and Jenn Sowle. JL Sunshine's costumes for them, and for the other human and nonhuman characters, are terrific.
Almost as hilarious as the show itself are the comments on the show in the media: treatises clinically discussing the use of tut-tut words as viewed in the sociological rearview mirror of society as it careens down the road to complete moral collapse.
These are words that adolescents whisper in the school elementary school bathroom to prove their worldliness. The thought of two 11-year-olds having a harmless discussion these days is unbelievable, as there's nothing taboo on cable television or social media. (Although admittedly, the sheer amount and speed at which they come in Jerry Springer: The Opera might shock even those who consider themselves unshockable.)
If so, then what is all the “the show will bring about the end of civilization” talk about? The last vestiges of Victorian properness? A return to mid-20th century censorship? Christian organizations marched on the show in London—which historically only brings more attention to the object of their ire. No one picketed in Grapevine on opening weekend, although reportedly the theater has received some “you’re going to hell” phone calls.
Maybe so, if laughter is a catalyst for being sent to hell; Jerry Springer: The Opera is one very funny romp.
Hopefully no one actually thinks that this is supposed to be an honest portrayal of real and fictional characters. They did not write a philosophical tome on the duality of God and Satan. They wrote an outrageous comedy.
Ohlook is a tiny theater in a Grapevine strip mall, but don’t let the modest surroundings fool you. This is a first-rate production that needs to be seen. It's doubtful any other local theater would have the balls to take it on.