One can brand TV’s “The Jerry Springer Show” as:
1) a hilariously ribald, rowdy freak pageant. Or as
2) further, irrefutable evidence of the decline and fall of Western civilization.
“Jerry Springer: The Opera” has it both ways with the long-running, trash-talk show, which broke new ground for tastelessness on TV — and opened the gates for a murky flood of copycat “reality” series.
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A huge hit in Britain, by the duo of composer-lyricist Richard Thomas and co-lyricist Stewart Lee (Brits love pointing out what cultural barbarians we Americans are), this uproariously outrageous carnival is at the Moore Theatre, in an energetic Seattle premiere staged by Balagan Theatre.
Be warned that “Jerry Springer: The Opera” at times outgrosses what it parodies — a howl-and-brawl, mock-therapy TV encounter group that recently aired such episodes as “Baby Mamas Blow Up” and “If You’ll have a Threesome, I’ll Marry You.”
The musical theater sendup merrily pushes the kinkiness and faked clashes of repulsive couples to profane and scatological extremes.
But the genius is in how Thomas and Lee have transformed an imagined live taping of Springer’s show into a genuine opera, handily (and mercilessly) melding highbrow and lowbrow aesthetics. With witty nods to Bach and Handel, Bizet and Gershwin, the remarkable score subsumes the oversized passions and preposterous romantic plots of classical opera into a lurid spectacle of American pulp fantasy.
Given a cast of more than two dozen actor-singers, and a demanding musical palette, this is a major undertaking for Balagan and co-producer Seattle Theatre Group. Director Shawn Belyea and musical director Nathan Young deserve a big hand for pulling it off so well, with a fine assist from designers Ahren Buhmann (lights) and Philip Lienau (sets).
But once again, as in Balagan’s mounting of the musical “Carrie,” talented voices are too often contorted and sabotaged here by ragged amplification. This is a serious shortcoming, not a mere irritation.
A Greek-style vocal chorus (Jerry’s studio audience) opens the show with a pious hymn to their TV god, punctuated with fervent chants of “Jer-ry! Jer-ry!” The ringmaster Springer (Brandon Felker) saunters on, a smooth huckster who floats above what he has wrought with an air of wry detachment.
His first guest is a shlubby guy who reveals he’s cheating on his unaware wife with a woman, and three-timing her with a transsexual. Another guest confides a smutty sexual quirk, and then his disgusted wife is introduced to the childlike female playmate who meets her spouse’s perverse needs.
Later, a certain racist hate group in white robes launches into a snappy tap dance number (yes, it goes there), one of several choreographed by Kathryn van Meter.
The libretto’s nonstop vulgarities (mostly unquotable in this newspaper) are so off the charts, they’re ludicrously funny — especially when packed into arias sung by a well-harmonized choir and opera-trained soloists. Vocal standouts, despite that harsh miking, include soaring sopranos Jennifer Bromagen, Megan Chenovick and Rachel DeShon, all playing multiple roles. (The male voices aren’t quite as strong.)
By mid-Act 1, the libretto’s potty-mouth novelty wanes. But in Act 2, the show smartly pivots into Morality Play mode, sending Springer into a purgatory where a hip, jealous Satan (aced by rocker Sean Nelson) and an effeminate, Buddha-like Jesus (Kevin Douglass) battle over his soul — until God (Evan Woltz), a celestial lounge lizard, intervenes.
The irreverence of this wacky “Don Juan in Hell” fantasia has incurred the wrath of Christian groups in the U.K., and Balagan is getting emails protesting the Seattle production as sacrilegious.
But “Jerry Springer: The Opera” is all about skewering sacred (and profane) cows, and (if you’re patient) not without purpose. In the afterlife fantasia, Springer is held to account for the toxic sludge he’s unleashed on the airwaves. And, in his offhand way, he repents.
His alibi? “I don’t solve [these] problems. I just televise them.” And people still watch, voraciously.
Misha Berson: firstname.lastname@example.org