The Jerry Springer hall-of-mirrors effect works something like this: First you're appalled by, let's say, the suburban husband who confesses to his wife that he's been turning tricks with men. Then you're nauseated by the crazed, rabid audience reaction, which typically oscillates between extremely vocal disgust and open delight. Then, finally, you realize you've been dragged into the sewer yourself via the simple act of watching it all. Bingo. Just like that, you've been implicated.
So the notion of inflating all this down-and-out sleaze to operatic proportions has its perverse appeal, and when this show first appeared in England, it came away with a load of awards in its grubby mitts. Still, going in, one can be forgiven for a good deal of skepticism over how Jerry Springer the Opera can possibly transcend its tedious roots.
It does, for the most part, on the strength of energetically gung-ho performances and inventive, well-balanced content (the book and lyrics are by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, with Thomas composing the music). The first act is essentially a musical staging of the show, with three sets of guests revealing their various kinks and transgressions to a jeering chorus.
The linchpin throughout, of course, is Jerry Springer (Carl M. Schoenborn). While Schoenborn will never be hired as Springer's body double, he ably morphs into the sultan of sleaze with a dead-on arsenal of tics and mannerisms: the flustered head shake, the hand half-covering his incredulous stare, the screw-it shrug and hasty retreat from the revelation of yet another layer of depravity.
First on the scene are Dwight (Shaun Nathan Baer) and Peaches (Kim Kivens); Dwight confesses his rather run-of-the-mill affair with Peaches's best friend, then proceeds to add that he's also seeing a tranny named Tremont (Bart Ruf, who executes a cartwheel in black vinyl boots that verges on mind-blowing).
Next is Montel (Thomas Karki), who strips down to a diaper and gleefully confesses his coprophilia (a word rarely applicable in theater criticism). By this point in the show, the lyrics and dialogue share his affinity for the potty, with ample profanity and abundant references to penis size, anal sex, spanking, and the redemptive power of pole dancing.
If it wasn't as funny as it is, the spectacle would be ghastly. And fortunately, the mock talk show ends after an hour, with a KKK rally-slash-musical number. This production couldn't sustain itself on garden-variety perversity much longer, and it doesn't try.
Instead, it turns downright arty. It turns out that Jerry is dead, and the first order of business in the afterlife is for Jerry to be confronted by the haunted spirits of those whose lives were destroyed by revelations made on his show. Happily enough, by now Schoenborn is so believable that his reaction (essentially: "Hey, piss off! You all signed waivers!") elevates both the humor and the dark cynicism of what follows.
The Devil (Derek Blechinger, gamely sinister but weak on pipes) duly arrives and takes Jerry to Hell, where he's condemned to host a talk show designed to broker some sort of peace between the Devil and Jesus (Karki again). The split between Heaven and Hell, Satan informs us, has been "chapping my ass since the dawn of time." And, he adds, "I want a fucking apology."
Milton it ain't, but it's nonetheless entertaining. Most of the cast members are solid singers and capably pull off some of the genuinely operatic aspects of the score. And the twists keep coming, from the arrival of a bitter Virgin Mary (Susan Brodin) to a whiny, clingy God (Baer). By the rollicking, self-mocking finale, I had a sense that I couldn't take much more. But then I walked into the night, singing to myself a catchy five-word refrain about a semi-exotic sexual practice, and I realized that I had been hooked. Implicated, you might even say.
Jerry Springer the OperaMinneapolis Musical Theatre
at Hennepin Stages
through October 28612.673.0404