What do cheating spouses, Jesus, strippers, Satan and tap dancing Ku Klux Klan members all have in common? They are featured in Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s musical Jerry Springer: The Opera. Ten years since gracing the National Theatre with it’s colourful profanity and controversial characters, the Olivier Award Winning Show has returned for one week at The Lost Theatre, Battersea. When the original production was televised on BBC Two, they received 55,000 complaints due to the musical’s treatment of Judeo-Christian characters in the second act. Christian Voice continued efforts to silence the show, protesting outside nine separate BBC Offices and announced it would bring blasphemy charges against the BBC. The Christian Institute attempted to bring private prosecution against the BBC which was refused a summons by the Magistrates Court and later upheld by the High Court Of Justice. Protests continued outside theatres during the 2006 UK Tour and the media frenzy surrounding the show ensued. They say, “all publicity is good publicity” and the resulting hype and press attention created by the theatrical scandal aided the musicals success enormously.
Viewers of Jerry Springer’s mid-90’s talk show will be familiar with the format, types of guests and audience enthusiasm Springer is known for. Jerry’s guests range from cheating people of short statures, sibling sexual relationships and people hiding their gender form their partners. All conversations seem to end in a fist fight, security stepping in and the audience chanting the name of host, “Jerry! Jerry! Jerry!” The first act of Jerry Springer: The Opera celebrates these traditions as we open to an audience warm-up man greeting the audience before meeting Springer’s first guests, Dwight who tells his fiancé Peaches he is cheating on her with Zandra and then admits to cheating on Zandra with transgender woman Tremont. As you can imagine, this goes down like a tonne of bricks and a fight ensues, security steps in and we go to commercial break. After the break we’re introduced to Montel, who confesses to his partner, Andrea, that he enjoys dressing as a baby and he is cheating on her with Baby Jane who shares his interest in autonepiophilia (yes, ‘autonepophilia’). The warm-up man bursts onstage and mocks Andrea for her inability to fulfil Montel’s fetish resulting in his immediate dismissal. Jerry’s last guests are Shawntel and husband Chucky. Shawntel dreams of being a stripper and demonstrates her skills to her mother, who then attacks her. Chucky plays innocent, but Jerry’s hidden camera exposes Chucky as a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan appears onstage tap dancing, Montel gets a gun from the disgruntled warm-up man and accidently shoots Jerry.
Act Two begins with Jerry in a wheelchair being visited by ghostly versions of his guests who have all met unpleasant fates. As Jerry tries to justify himself to his guests, Satan (played by a red-suit clad warm-up man) arrives and drags Jerry to hell to do a special show. Act Three serves as a fiery version of The Jerry Springer Show where Jerry introduces Satan and his plan to reunite Heaven and Hell. Guided by Baby June, Jerry’s first guest in this warped version of his show is Jesus who argues with Satan. Next up are Adam and Eve, who argue with Jesus and finally they all turn against Jerry. God arrives and askes Jerry to travel to Heaven with him to judge humanity, when Jerry accepts the devils and angels fight over him and he finds himself prisoner. Jerry tries to bargain for his life and makes an honest emission about the plight of humanity which positively effects his situation and everyone sings a prayer to him. Jerry then wakes up in his studio, having been shot and gives his ‘final thoughts’ before the cast is joined in sorrow and sings to his glory.
The Lost Theatre’s young cast performed admirably, to the best of their vocal abilities. Giving their all during ensemble, dance and solo numbers. I specifically enjoyed performances given by Edward Baxter as ‘Dwight’ and Sylvia Medina as ‘Shawntel’. ‘Dwight’ was Jerry’s first guest and Baxter’s rich tone and powerful voice held it’s own and his third act performance of ‘God’ was vocally beautiful. Medina gave a credible performance as wannabe stripper ‘Shawntel’. Her voice soared during her solo, sang to her pole, ‘I Just Wanna Dance’. I also enjoyed the various musical ‘commercial breaks’, they were simply performed and harmonised tightly. However, as no song list was given in the programme I am unable to mention the actors who performed these funny snippets in this review.
The Jerry Springer Show started airing from 1991 and the musical premiered 2003 where subjects such as lesbians, trans people and strippers were taboo. Springer’s show shone a light on these communities as entertainment disguised as therapy. There will always be a percentage of population who find these types of subjects taboo, however as society evolves we now have celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres, Caitlyn Jenner and Kim Kardashian who have allowed positive conversations to start and learning about these communities to begin. Jerry Springer: The Opera has not aged well in this respect and this production heavily weighed on it’s comedic plot to carry the show, poking fun of communities we now call friends. The costumes in this production were period, however not 90’s-esque enough to evoke a clear idea of the setting of the show. Had these costumes been more detailed and quintessentially 90’s middle-America, it would have made the situations and treatment of the ‘taboo’ subjects/characters believable resulting in a comedic nostalgia.
Jerry Springer: The Opera contains no recognisable music, none of the songs you find yourself humming during interval or after the show. With such a complicated plot and sung-through score, the Lost Theatre creative team had the responsibility to represent the authors work and make the show easily accessible to the audience by ensuring the twenty-three strong cast works extra hard to make sure all lyrics are emphasised, characters well thought out and each movement has intention. During the extensive ensemble numbers I had to strain to understand the lyrics, often missing big chunks, only hearing the constant profanity. Sound design opted to amplify the stage, rather than individual cast which meant as soon as an actor turned profile or upstage, the sound was lost. Working with such a large cast on a small stage is always tricky, often I found the sheer mass of people on stage overwhelming and the use of them ineffective during the third act ensemble numbers. Throughout the show, I found myself wondering if a simply staged concert version of the show would have better represented the authors work, made the lyrics audible and given the ensemble purpose during their vast numbers.
Lost Theatre’s production of Jerry Springer: The Opera offered much to it’s audience, including a mega-mix of songs featured in the show as an encore. With a more refined vision, this show has the ability to entertain, shock and possibly connect with it’s audience and I hope to see more productions of it in the future.
Reviewed by Stuart James
Jerry Springer the Opera plays at the Lost Theatre until 19 March