Admit it. If you’re channel surfing and land on “Maury” or “Jerry Springer,” you check out the programming for a minute or two.
If you’ve never had the dubious pleasure of witnessing these catfight free-for-alls, where the bleep button works overtime, I suggest you turn to the next page. A context is required for this strange universe.
“Jerry Springer – The Opera” is indeed an opera, with the form’s capacity for excess meeting its perverse match in the contrived conflicts of trash television.
Luckily here, it’s all played — and sung — for laughs. The over-the-top showmanship of the New Group production is a snug fit for this outrageous subject matter.
Though the real television show’s guests may have no clue to the cultural implications of their willingness to unfurl dirty laundry on broadcast television, or to their exploitation as cash machines for producers and the networks, we can watch from the safety of home and think we know better, if not more.
We’re not these people, we say. We’re just watching. And millions do watch, daily, as the host prods guests to mayhem over affairs, paternity, and obsessions from A to Z.
“Jerry Springer – The Opera” does not offer any solutions to this divide, and scant insight into the phenomenon of broadcast television’s dive to the bottom. But as the saying goes, that’s entertainment.
More than anything, “Jerry Springer – The Opera” shows the eagerness of the supplicant guests to tell all and come out fighting for the hungry eye of television.
This is a terrific production. The format is the television show itself, complete with security, a worshipful audience, Jerry with his microphone, and of course, an outrageous cavalcade of needy, combative guests.
Unlike the actual television show, here we travel backstage, and even to the afterlife. Yes, God and Satan do appear, and sing. Alas, the opera offers no real accounting for our hero’s part in the dumbing down of our era, but perhaps that is best saved for the real hereafter (good luck, Mr. Springer).
Here, still hosting in the great beyond, Jerry tells us finally that there’s no real difference between good and evil. That’s a big cop-out for him, and for the bigger question of the elevation of tacky to prime time.
But these issues are left for us to debate on our own. This production is an alternate universe, with great singing and taste coming out to play.
Written by Richard Thomas (composer and lyricist) and based on a book by Stewart Lee, “Jerry Springer – The Opera” owes a lot to the spirit and style of the late John Vaccaro’s Theatre of the Ridiculous, where nothing was spared in the cause of the outrageous.
John Rando’s direction here is a big-budget valentine to those bygone spectaculars downtown. His collaborators — Chris Bailey (choreography), Sarah Laux (costumes), Derek McClane (sets), Michael Brennan (musical direction), and Jeff Croiter (lights) gleefully join in and create an eye-popping companion to the proudly vulgar antics.
There is no shame here, and never a finger on the bleep button.
An exuberant ensemble of 16 — all in great voice — swirls around Terrence Mann’s somber portrayal of Jerry. Every move of this large cast is calculated, a parade of human exclamation points, and the production zooms along on this unified overkill.
You will never see such silliness elevated so high.