It’s almost quaint to remember the pearl-clutching inspired by The Jerry Springer Show in its late-1990s heyday. The daytime tabloid presented America as a bottomless basket of deplorables, with any number of people willing to air their dirty laundry in public for a chance to be on TV. Though our current political circus offers more than enough trashy tragicomedy, the still-running Jerry Springer Show once claimed the corner on tacky, made-in-America escapism.
Jerry Springer: The Opera, now in revival at the Signature Center, originally premiered in 2003 when the TV show, though past its prime, was still a cultural touchstone. The musical, like the show, has lost quite a bit of its power to shock, but its lowbrow/highbrow stew is still funny as hell, which is where its namesake ends up after being shot by a man in a diaper aiming at a member of the KKK (it makes sense in context). In hell, Satan (Will Swenson) orders Jerry (Terrence Mann) to perform the most important show of his life, giving Satan a chance to “tell (his) story truthfully,” with guests including Jesus, Mary, Adam and Eve.
The skeletal plot is primarily an excuse to stage barely exaggerated versions of typical Springer scenarios. Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s perceptive libretto knows what Jerry Springer’s audience expects: “Fat people fighting, open crotch sighting, pimps in bad suits, mothers who are prostitutes.” It wasn’t just the prurient spectacle that made the show such a juggernaut, though, but the cannily predictable way each story unfurled like a mini three-act drama.
Though ostensibly the star of his own show, Jerry has always been more of a ringmaster (the title of his 1998 semi-autobiographical film), steering the chaos but ceding the spotlight to his colorful guests. In the title role, Broadway vet Mann (Cats, Pippin) drifts stolidly in and out of the action but his conscience, in the form of a Valkyrie (sure, why not?) nags: “Jerry makes the morons fight, but how does Jerry sleep at night?” “No one is forced to do this show,” he responds. The controversy is familiar to those who remember the cultural commentariat grappling with the implications of the ascendant reality-TV genre, but it’s a 2003 argument in a 2018 culture that largely shrugs its shoulders at such matters. “I wanna be on TV!” the audience moans, but from YouTube to social media, who’s left who hasn’t been on TV?
Mann and Swenson are the headliners, but it’s Jerry Springer’s ensemble that sparkles. All sing Thomas’s mongrel score with sharpness and precision, but cast standouts include Beth Kirkpatrick as “crack whore” Zandra, Justin Keyes as Montel/Jesus, and Tiffany Mann, whose wannabe stripper Shawntel tears the roof off in “I Just Wanna Dance,” wisely remixed and reprised as the audience shuffles out. It’s questionable if The Jerry Springer Show further exploits the exploited or gives them a voice, but in Jerry Springer: The Opera the fat, the weird and the ugly are gods and goddesses. Director John Rando brings clarity to the pandemonium, as in his too-soon-gone masterpiece, 2001’s Urinetown (R.I.P.).
Jerry Springer is decadent by design. Just as the TV show seems to be never-ending, its opera counterpart is relentless in its attempts to shock and offend; the word “whore” is uttered no less than 16 times. The show has a point to make about America’s insatiable adolescent appetites, but it gets old. The Book of Mormon has stolen Jerry Springer’s thunder by being more transgressive and doing it better.
What hasn’t aged is the show’s dissection of an America that refuses to listen. Though people allegedly come on Jerry’s show to hash out their problems, the dramas inevitably end in a refusal to engage; the delightfully campy throwback line “Talk to the hand” is repeated throughout, with variations. (Shawntel: “Talk to the ass.” Jesus: “Talk to the stigmata.”)
“Who will speak for us when you are gone?” troubled audience members ask when Jerry’s survival is uncertain. “Oprah? Judge Judy? Dr. Phil? Ellen?” That Jerry Springer: The Opera failed to correctly prophesy which reality-TV star would scale to the highest office in the land is hardly its fault, but no matter how tame the show feels now, its warning from the past to not place our hope in celebrity stings with bitter rebuke.
The New Group’s revival of Jerry Springer: The Opera runs through Macrch 11 at Pershing Square Signature Center (480 W. 42nd St.). Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and 8 p.m. on Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. For tickets and information, call Ticket Central at (212) 244-7529 or visit signaturetheatre.org.