The New Group at the Pershing Square Signature Center
The Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre
480 West 42nd St. between between Ninth & Tenth Aves.
Tuesday - Sunday through April 1, $95 - $135
Since 1982, journalist, actor, politician, author, and recording artist Jerry Springer has hosted his confrontational, eponymously titled syndicated talk show, in which friends, lovers, and family members go at it on national television, with the rowdy studio audience cheering on the verbal and even physical battles, chanting the familiar refrain of “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” This week the program’s themes are “Little People, Big Problems,” “Cheating Like a Boss,” “Catfish & Release,” “Spiteful Sex,” and “Bromance Break-Ups.” Richard Thomas (book, music, lyrics) and Stewart Lee (book, additional lyrics) have transformed this most American phenomenon into the wildly funny and fabulously foul-mouthed musical Jerry Springer — The Opera, which has been extended at the Pershing Square Signature Center through April 1. The idea started with Thomas’s one-man show, How to Write an Opera about Jerry Springer, in 2001 and has gone through numerous iterations since then. The New Group production is choreographed with plenty of humor by Chris Bailey (Newsies, Cyrano de Bergerac) and directed with flair by Tony winner John Rando (Urinetown, On the Town) on Tony winner Derek McLane’s (33 Variations, Anything Goes) intimate set, with the audience sitting in only a handful of rows on three sides. The two-and-a-half-hour show begins with an “Overtly-Ture,” which references a lap-dancing preoperative transsexual, a lesbian dwarf, and a mom who used to be a dad, followed by “Audience Very Plainsong,” in which an audience chorus calls a man some pretty foul names that cannot be repeated here but had me in stitches.
During some preparatory shtick by annoying warm-up man Jonathan Wierus (Tony nominee Will Swenson) in which the audience declares its desire for “open crotch sighting, pimps in bad suits, mothers who are prostitutes, and cocaine abusers with no noses,” Jerry (three-time Tony and Emmy nominee Terence Mann) takes the stage and announces that today’s theme is “guilty secrets,” and he proceeds to parade up a series of men and women who reveal some fascinating proclivities to their significant others, leading to some riotous song-and-dance numbers while enjoying their “Jerry Springer Moment.” The audience chorus regularly chimes in with such poetic gems as “Dirty whore, dirty whore, filthy dirty manky skanky slut whore, manky, skanky slut whore” and “Vomit / Vomit / Puke my guts out / Secretly kinda hot.” There are some hysterical fake commercials for weight loss, insurance, and Jesus, although one does descend into really unfunny bad taste. Through it all, Jerry eggs everyone on by offering such gentle encouragements as “So, Baby Jane — what is it you want to say to Andrea?” Meanwhile, the dedicated Steve (Billy Hepfinger) provides security for Jerry and the guests, but when things go awry with Wierus, a shot is fired, and the second half of the show moves to purgatory, where Jerry has to prove to Satan (Swenson) that he should not go to hell.
The first half of Jerry Springer — The Opera is everything it should be and more: rude and crude, wild and wacky, and even, dare I say, poignant. It also fits in well with what’s happening on social media these days, except online it’s anonymous people screaming, shouting, and shaming in the ether. Mann (Beauty and the Beast Les Misérables), who will be replaced by Matt McGrath beginning March 13, is a steady, calming presence as Springer, walking up and down the aisles holding his microphone and his cards, engaging with the audience, and standing back while Steve tries to break up fights. The diverse cast, all of whom play multiple roles except for Mann and Hepfinger, has a blast, with Jennifer Allen as Irene, Florrie Bagel as Peaches, Sean Patrick Doyle as Tremont, Luke Grooms as Dwight, Nathaniel Hackmann as Chucky, Justin Keyes as Montel, Beth Kirkpatrick as Zandra, Elizabeth Loyacono as Andrea, a scene-stealing Tiffany Mann as Shawntel, and Jill Paice as Baby Jane, each character sharing his or her deliciously decadent secret, wearing superbly awful outfits courtesy of costume designer Sarah Laux. The purgatory section of the show lags far behind what came before; it’s repetitive and not nearly as much fun as the previous two acts, the songs not as appealing, the new characters too silly and, well, over the top even in Jerry Springer world. In addition, Valkyrie (Kim Steele), a dark, winged creature who serves as Jerry’s conscience, appears only once, never to be seen again, as if Thomas (Anna Nicole, Tourettes Diva) and Lee (Made in Dagenham, What Would Judas Do?) just forgot about her. But at the heart of the musical is its fondness for Jerry the human being, who feels he’s just a good guy helping people express themselves. “Everybody has the right to a voice. Everybody has a story which should be told,” he says. “No matter what your background, no matter what you’ve done, you deserve your voice. Say what you like about me and the show — I give a platform to the marginalized and dispossessed.” And in the end, isn’t that all that matters? Oh, what also matters is that Jerry Springer — The Opera features what must be the longest “Fuck you” in the history of live theater.