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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Jerry Springer - The Opera
Lyttelton Theatre Summer 2003; Cambridge Theatre Autumn 2003-Spring 2005

(Scroll down for our return visit at the show's transfer to the West End.)

May 2003: It actually is an opera of sorts, it actually is about the host of the notoriously downmarket American TV chat show, and - despite stretching a couple of basic jokes a bit too far - it actually is quite a lot of fun.

Jerry Springer is, of course, the nominal host - though, as this satire reminds us, his involvement consists entirely of reading from cue cards - of an Oprah-style show that deliberately seeks out the most bizarre dregs of American society.

Its guests all look like their pre-show night in a Chicago hotel was their first experience of indoor plumbing; and when a woman brings her husband or boyfriend on to tell him a secret, it can be one of only two things - she's sleeping with his father (or sister), or she's really a man in drag.

JS-The Opera, music by Richard Thomas, book and lyrics by Thomas and Stewart Lee, grew out of a cabaret act and was workshopped through several incarnations until it was a hit of the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002. It was adopted there by the National Theatre for further development into its present form.

One thing that is immediately clear is that the NT's investment has been invaluable. A lot of money and professionalism have been spent - and well spent - on this version, which is exactly as polished and glitzy as it should be, adding considerably to the fun.

The basic joke of the show is that operatic-style music and operatically trained voices are devoted to arias and choruses about sleeping with your wife's best friend or being a crack whore or wanting to dress in diapers or the like. The joke is sustained longer than you'd think it could be, but wisely no further than the first act, which purports to be a typical Springer broadcast.

Act Two, through convoluted means, finds Jerry in Hell, where Satan forces him to conduct a show in which the devil can confront God and His dysfunctional family, with some of the humour coming from the doubling of roles, so the trailer trash of Act One now appear in divine or biblical form.

The other running gag of the show, which does wear very very thin very very fast, is the constant operatic singing of the obscenities and profanities that would be bleeped out of an actual broadcast.

Let me be clear - I have no objection to the standard handful of four-letter words. I do object to the lazy playwriting that relies on the constant and uninventive repetition of the standard handful of four-letter words for the knee-jerk laughs they generate, especially in the hallowed halls of the National Theatre. It is too easy a joke that is relied on far too extensively, when other things in the show demonstrate that the authors are capable of more inventive wit.

Indeed, one of the more impressive qualities of the show, which the creators almost seem to try to hide, is a subtext aware of the sad aspects of American society reflected by Springer's success.

When the onstage studio audience sing  'We eat, excrete and watch TV' and 'Bring on the losers' we catch a hint of their need to find someone - anyone - they can feel superior to, while one of the sweetest melodies is given to the overweight guest whose totally unreal dream of becoming a pole dancer gives us a glimpse of a dead-end life with nothing but fantasy to keep it going.

Moments like that, which catch you up short in the midst of the cheap jokes, may be the ones that linger in your memory.

In the non-singing role of Springer, Michael Brandon captures the man's blandness and just-in-it-for-the-money aloofness, while David Bedella generates a lot of energy in the twin roles of the TV show's warm-up man and Satan. Singers Lore Lixenberg, Wills Morgan, Benjamin Lake and Alison Jiear carry the musical and much of the dramatic burden, and Guy Porritt repeatedly steals scenes as the almost silent security man Steve.

Stewart Lee directs with high energy, supported significantly by the witty designs of Julian Crouch. Choreographer Jenny Arnold has the taste to steal from the best, with overt allusions to Bob Fosse, Mel Brooks and Monty Python.

JS-The Opera is already a sell-out at the National, and I'll be surprised if it doesn't transfer to the West End, where it may well become this year's guilty pleasure, the show you'll be embarrassed to admit you actually enjoyed.

Gerald Berkowitz

 

November 2003: The National Theatre's big summer hit transfers to the West End more-or-less intact, with the few changes generally not for the better.

It is still an ironic salute to the bizarre American TV show, and it still gets an awful lot of mileage out of two basic jokes - the operatic singing of white-trash-style stories, and the excessive and not particularly imaginative use of a handful of common obscenities.

But, judging (perhaps unfairly) from the preview performance I saw (and comparing notes with colleagues who saw other performances), some of the high energy and verve seems to have gone out of the work. And that - the obvious fun the show was having, and inviting us to have, in poking fun at this easy target - was a very big part of its attractiveness.

I hope that the show recaptures that spirit, though the one big staging change - stretching the action to encompass the theatre's boxes as well as the stage - acts against it by slowing everything down and dissipating the focus and energy.

So take this as a tentative recommendation. If they get their act together, this will be the same delightfully guilty pleasure it was at the National. If they don't, future audiences may wonder what all the fuss was about.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Jerry Springer The Opera - National 2003