'Jerry Springer: The Opera' Is Very Merry!

As of last Sunday, the Chance Theater had received more than 19,000 emails and letters from outraged Catholic-leaning citizens protesting its production of Jerry Springer: The Opera. Apparently, none of these people has actually seen the show, since what they should be protesting isn't Jesus Christ dressed in a diaper or Mother Mary walking onstage to a chorus of “Raped by an angel.” For what's truly offensive isn't the tongue-firmly-lodged-in-cheek “blasphemy,” but a feeble second act that wanders and meanders through half-baked metaphysics and hangs on with all the tenacity of a pit bull's jaws clamped on a kitty's neck.

The lame second half nearly squanders an explosively irreverent and belly-laugh-inducing first half—but not quite. This is, by any measure, a hilarious satire of the cult of Springer, something that gleefully impales all targets, from, yes, the rock that God's holy church was built upon to the KKK, transsexuals and coprophagiacs (look it up—it's worth it!). An outrageously talented cast enthusiastically devours the show's 45 musical numbers—the only cast member who doesn't sing is Warren Draper's eerily Springer-like Springer—and director Trevor Biship skillfully guides his enormous ensemble through everything from tap-dancing Klansmen routines to paeans to fecal obsession.

True, the vast majority of the truly perverse and wickedly funny stuff is found in the first act. But the fault for the disappointing second half goes to the guys who wrote it: Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas, two Brits who conceived the idea in 2003. After the BBC broadcast a filmed version of the show in 2005, a massive throng of protesters chimed in, something that has afflicted nearly every subsequent production from the U.K. to San Francisco.

Humorless Catholics and other assorted Christians have every right to protest, but all they're really doing is giving more publicity to a show that doesn't need it. Deliciously salacious and brilliant in a beautifully corrupt way, the show is as brain-dead and tawdry as the long-running talk show it's based upon. And using the conceit of an opera (there is scant dialogue; nearly every word not uttered by Springer is sung) somehow manages to add a sheen of class to even the sickest behavior.

The first act is basically an episode of The Jerry Springer Show, complete with the requisite tackiness, profanity, hair-pulling and chair-hurling. Guests show up before an amped-up, ready-to-rumble studio audience to confess their basest secrets—from cheating on their fiances with crack whores and transsexuals to their closet fetishes. It all ends with Springer being shot. The second act follows Springer on his descent into hell, where an irate Satan (David Laffey) enlists a reluctant Springer to helm a show in Hades that he hopes will prod an apology from Jesus (Jared Pugh) and/or God (Jovani McCleary).

That section is kind of a mess, and while the creators' attempt at elevating the doctrine of dualism to a rational guiding principle of life might appeal to your inner Manichean, it comes off as forced and simplistic as Springer's “final thought” that ended every broadcast of his real TV show (and which South Park has gleefully incorporated into its structure). The point, one supposes, is don't blame the messenger. Those who castigate Springer (whose influence on popular culture, sadly, probably trumps the collective pull of the Pope and Oprah Winfrey; would reality TV even exist were it not for his trailblazing path?) and his kind conveniently forget that there was—and still is—an enormous audience for the freaks he paraded onscreen. His show, and the opera based on it, was pure entertainment, even if it trafficked in the most outrageous of human behaviors. And if either is truly offensive, it's not because of any overt appeals to the lowest common denominator, but rather the reality that sick shit like this really exists.

And devout, outraged Catholics, consider this as you finger your rosaries in horror and humbly bow to your image of a crucified redeemer: The Catholic Church has withstood the Roman Empire, barbarian invasions, infidel Turks and Arabs, the Western Schism, the Black Death, a Borgia pope, the Renaissance and Enlightenment, the Third Reich, an astonishingly pervasive pedophilia scandal, even Christopher Hitchens. So it's highly unlikely a deliriously funny show produced in a small theater in Anaheim Hills truly poses much of a threat. The Chance should be applauded for possessing the balls to mount this show in the face of thousands of people who want it condemned to hell.

But even more, the theater should be applauded for assembling such a ridiculously talented cast and producing something that, for the first hour at least, is more entertaining than an Olympic-sized swimming pool filled with cross-eyed hermaphrodite dwarves getting fucked up the ass with barbed wire.

This review appeared in print as “Jerry! Very! Merry! Jerry Springer: The Opera overcomes a lame second half to satisfy your inner freak.”

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