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A CurtainUp Review
Jerry Springer — the Opera

I don't solve problems. I televise them. — Jerry
Jerry and the Devil
An intern at the Bailiwick Repertory Theatre approached the stage moments before the start of Jerry Springer — The Opera to give the obligatory "silence your cell phone" reminder. He then introduced the show and encouraged the audience to kick it off the same way they do on TV: by chanting loudly "Jer-ry, Jer-ry" until the host appears. The audience obliged, timidly at first, but with growing confidence. Soon, people were on their feet. An overly-enthusiastic crowd? No, just cast members peppered throughout the house. They made their way to the aisles to join the rest of the ensemble to sing the "Overtly-ture." One thing was clear: this was not going to be your typical night at the opera.

Jerry Springer — The Opera was a huge hit in London, playing on the West End and winning an Olivier Award. Bailiwick's production marks its American premiere, and it seems especially appropriate that it take place in Chicago, the town where Jerry Springer taped his show. This satirical musical does poke fun at certain American stereotypes and seeing it helmed by an American director and with an American cast, inspires a good-natured laugh at ourselves.

If you're unfamiliar with the television phenomenon that is The Jerry Springer Show, the show's host — Mr. Jerry Springer, former mayor of Cincinnati — brings together weekly a collection of people with something to say. Unlike the respectable Oprah Winfrey, Springer produces entertainment at the lowest common denominator: sex, betrayal, anger, hate, love, insecurity. Audiences watch, hoping for fights, foul language, and the possibility of nudity. To many people, the program is a syndicated freak show. Whatever your personal perspective on it is, it's undeniably full of heightened emotions and larger-than-life characters. It is, in fact, perfect fodder for an opera.

The stage production is divided into three acts, with an intermission falling between the first two. Act I is a sensational musical recreation of the TV show, with an onstage audience, temperamental guests, Steve the Security Guy (Adam Minegar), Jonathan the Warm Up Man (Jeremy Rill) and our beloved host himself, Jerry Springer (Brian Simmons). The lineup includes pole-dancing, a transvestite, tap-dancing members of the KKK, and certain fetishists that defy polite description. Things get even more out of hand when the disgruntled Warm Up Man turns up with a gun. Chaos ensues, and Jerry is shot.

Had the show ended here, it would have made for a clever, if shallow, evening of theater. Act I is smart and funny, similar to the comedies found at many Fringe festivals (in fact, Jerry Springer — The Opera got its start at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2002). It is the subsequent acts that make the piece transcend from musical parody to actual opera.

The short, highly stylized (and visually gorgeous) second act gives us our epic themes, our plot arc, and our character development. It is original, surreal, and creepy. Jerry is trapped in Limbo. The guests on his show didn't make much of their lives and died in tragic ways. Could Jerry have prevented it? Satan doesn't think so. He thinks Jerry's the right person to help with his own personal demons. The Devil takes Jerry Springer to Hell for Act III and demands that he put on his show from there. The guests? All of Satan's enemies. It's now up to Jerry to talk his way out of eternal damnation.

Despite its questionable subject matter, musically, the show could be called an opera rather than a musical and Gary Powell's musical direction emphasizes the operatic style. There is very little spoken dialogue, almost all of which is delivered by Jerry who does practically no singing. The songs aren't often stand-alone numbers but instead flow from one into another. There are arias and duets. The music is complex, vocally challenging, and often very beautiful. In contrast, the lyrics are incredibly vulgar. Never have I heard so many 4-letter words sung with such feeling and grace. The cursing and vulgarity, while certainly appropriate to the concept and authentic to the medium, eventually loses its shock value. The show was not dance-heavy, though choreographer Brenda Didier's work was highlighted in " I Just Want to Dance" and in tap-dancing ensemble pieces in the Acts I and III finales.

Under the direction of Bailiwick's Artistic Director David Zak, this production feels fresh and exciting. Even with Zak's strong staging, it could not have held up without its superb cast. The ensemble, a group of men and women with beautiful choral voices, was extremely strong, whether they were representing a raucous human audience or a raucous demonic one.

As our talk show host, Brian Simmons, with hair dyed blond, only mildly resembles the real man. However, his recreation of Jerry's mannerisms, gestures, and speech patterns — downcast, thoughtful looks, emphatic pauses— were spot on. It's a performance with a broad emotional range, from smarmy to desperate to truly sorry. I very quickly believed he was Jerry Springer.

Jeremy Rill made a nice transformation from meek sycophant into the Devil who appears to truly relish the role and rose admirably to its significant vocal challenge— especially his wonderful Act III duet with Jeffrey Bouthiette. Bouthiette, Montel in Act I and Jesus in Act III, possesses a gorgeous singing voice. Though more effective as Jesus, he is gamely committed to taking the risks that the role of Montel requires.

The female principals, though all quite good, have fewer opportunities for stand-out performances. Shawntel (Kate Garassino), an Act I guest with significant business during the remainder of the show, is not only vocally strong but can hang impressively from a pole. Jennifer T. Grubb, as Baby Jane, impresses with "This Is My Jerry Springer Moment" and "Jerry Elesion."

The focus of this production is on the performers and not on any technical wizardry. Scenic designer Ryan Trupp provides a reasonable facsimile of the real television studio set. The costumes are well-suited to their purposes: street clothes for the audience and "special" apparel for the guests with "special" interests. In Act II, costume designer Jeff Jones brilliantly dressed all of the earlier guests in all-white versions of their original costumes. Jerry Springer — The Opera is not for the timid or faint of heart. If you're not amused by foul language and the open mockery of America at its worst, don't go. But for those who are, this production is simply spectacular. Here's hoping it has a long life on this side of the Atlantic.

For a review of the London prodution of this show go here.

Jerry Springer — The Opera
Music by Richard Thomas
Book and Lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas
Directed by David Zak
Cast: Justin Amellio (Ensemble), Jeffrey A. Bouthiette (Montel/Jesus), Melonie Collman (Andrea/Angel Michael), Jenna Cramer (Valkyrie), Don Denton (Ensemble), Sean Effinger-Dean (Ensemble), Jessica Fisher (Ensemble), Anne Fitch (Ensemble), Adrian Fontinilla (Ensemble), Joe Ford (Ensemble), Harmony France (Zandra), Kate Garassino (Shawntel/Eve), Kathleen Gibson (Peaches), Jennifer T. Grubb (Baby Jane), Michael Harnichar (Ensemble), Nancy Kolton (Ensemble), Ryan Lanning (Tremont/Angel Gabriel), John B. Leen (Chucky/Adam), Caitlin Marshall (Ensemble), Eric Martin (Ensemble), Adam Minegar (Steve), Marcus Montoya (Ensemble), Jeremy Rill (Warm Up Man/The Devil), Christina Romano (Ensemble), Brian Simmons (Jerry Springer), Marcy Stonikas (Irene/Mary), Shannon Strodel (Ensemble), Joe Tokarz (Dwight/God), D. Eric Woolweber (Ensemble)
Musical Direction: Gary Powell
Choreography: Brenda Didier
Scenic Design: Ryan Trupp
Lighting Design: Jared Moore
Costume Design: Jeff Jones
Projection Design: Mike Tutaj
Fight Choreography: Laura Skolnik
Technical Direction: Joe Tokarz
Stage Manager: Deanna Cox
Running Time: 2 hours, 30 minutes (with intermission)
Bailiwick Repertory Theatre, 1229 W. Belmont Ave.
(773) 883-1090
From 5/3/07 to 7/8/07
Performance Schedule: Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3:30pm; Wednesdays at 7:30pm on June 20 and June 27
Tickets: $25 on Wednesdays and Thursdays, $35 on Fridays and Sundays, and $40 on Saturdays
Reviewed by Kimberly Patterson on May 25, 2007
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