Jerry Goes to Hell | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Jerry Goes to Hell 

The long-awaited U.S. premiere of Jerry Springer--The Opera is at a risk-taking theater for a reason.

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JERRY SPRINGER--THE OPERA BAILIWICK REPERTORY

WHEN Through 7/8: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3:30 PM

WHERE Bailiwick Repertory, Bailiwick Arts Center, 1229 W. Belmont

PRICE $25-$40

INFO 773-883-1090

Television is an invention that permits you to be entertained in your living room by people you wouldn't have in your home. --David Frost

What if the final conflict between Christ and Satan took place not on the battlefield of Armageddon but in a TV studio in front of a live audience of the dead? And what if the moderator wasn't the pope but syndicated talk show host Jerry Springer? Would this face-off be must-see TV? Would the son of God and the fallen angel reconcile? Would the result be a slugfest or a hugfest?

That's the concept behind Jerry Springer--The Opera, the controversial London hit that's finally receiving its U.S. premiere in Chicago, Springer's home base, in a solid, beautifully sung production at Bailiwick Repertory. British composer Richard Thomas and librettist Stewart Lee were intrigued by why anyone would watch Springer's sleazy show, much less appear on it. Their musical suggests that the on-air encounters between a long procession of losers resonate spiritually with Judeo-Christian culture. The verbal and sometimes physical battles involving jilted lovers and estranged families reflect the eternal struggle between good and evil, salvation and damnation, temptation and faith.

Jerry Springer--The Opera begins in this world, at a Springer show attended by a coarse, crude chorus of fans eager for blood. "I hope there's some fighting," sings one. "Of course there'll be some fighting, you stupid asshole," sings another. A smarmy warm-up man (the superb Jeremy Rill) leads the crowd in chants of "Jer-ry, Jer-ry!" Then Jerry (Brian Simmons in the show's only nonsinging role) takes the stage protected by two beefy bodyguards and welcomes a string of guests desperately seeking their "Jerry Springer moment." These walking wounded are driven by a compulsion to confess--and receive redemption for--their secret sins. One by one they unburden their souls and vent their pain while the chorus mocks them like ancient Romans jeering at Christian martyrs in a coliseum.

First up is Dwight (Joe Tokarz), who's cheating on his fiancee (Kathleen Gibson) with both a crack whore (Harmony France) and a "chick with a dick" in a black vinyl skirt (Ryan Lanning). Then comes Montel (Jeffrey A. Bouthiette), who wants his girlfriend (Melonie Collmann) to spank him and clean the poop out of his diaper--and who has a secret lover, Baby Jane (Jennifer T. Grubb), with a compatible infantile fixation. Next up are stripper Shawntel (Kate Garassino), her disapproving boyfriend (John B. Leen), and her mother (Marcy Stonikas), who reveals that Shawntel is the unwanted product of a rape. And then there's the chorus of tap-dancing Ku Klux Klansmen . . .

In the inevitable melee at the end of the first act Jerry is shot dead, and the hallucinatory second half takes place in Hades, depicted as an asylum inhabited by nurses in white uniforms and lunatics in straitjackets. Satan--the afterlife alter ego of the warm-up man--has arranged for the appearance of Jesus, his teenage unwed mother Mary, and those original sinners Adam and Eve, respectively the otherworldly alter egos of the would-be baby, the stripper's mother, the stripper herself, and the stripper's boyfriend. Unlike Jerry's usual guests, Satan has a simple desire: he wants an apology for millennia of mistreatment. But Jerry explains, "I don't do conflict resolution." When God (alter ego of the bisexual philanderer) barges in--well, all hell breaks loose.

First seen as a work in progress in 2001 at the Battersea Arts Centre on the London fringe, Jerry Springer--The Opera made its way to the mainstream via an engagement at the 2002 Edinburgh Festival, where Springer himself showed up to endorse it. The work's critically acclaimed official premiere, in 2003 at the National Theatre, was followed by a successful West End engagement, which led to reports of a Broadway run. But investors backed away from the project, perhaps scared off by evangelical Christians' furious reaction to a 2005 version of the opera by the BBC--which they nicknamed "the Blasphemy Broadcasting Corporation."

No question: Jerry Springer--The Opera is sacrilegious, not to mention occasionally obscene. Its potential to offend might explain why the American-premiere rights went to gutsy little Bailiwick instead of a bigger Equity regional theater. Bailiwick is used to pushing the envelope: it's got a history of hosting shows that challenge religion--Michael Murphy's Sin, Nicholas A. Patricca's Oh Holy Allen Ginsberg, Oh Holy Shit Sweet Jesus, Tantric Buddha, Dharma Road! and Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi as well as controversial solo performances by Karen Finley and Tim Miller.

Though swear words are bleeped out on Springer's show, in the opera every fuck, shit, and cocksucker comes through loud and clear, set to beautiful, unabashedly operatic music. Thomas's skillful, often challenging score reveals the influence of composers from Handel to Britten and Blitzstein. (Echoes of Gounod's Faust, Bernstein's Mass, and Weill's Street Scene are particularly prominent.) The contrast between the raunchy words and rapturous melodies is often comical, but it also reinforces the thesis that people are drawn equally to elevation and debasement.

Director David Zak, choreographer Brenda Didier, and musical director Gary Powell have put together a playful yet provocative production. Under Powell's impressive guidance, the young, talented 29-member ensemble delivers some knockout solos and beautifully blended choruses, displaying powerful voices and crisp articulation, guaranteeing that virtually no word of the libretto is lost. Mike Tutaj created the remarkable visuals: two TV monitors play images from the real Springer show along with original footage, including mock commercials for Prozac, guns, Viagra, auto insurance, breast surgery, and organized religion.

"Television is the first truly democratic culture . . . entirely governed by what the people want," critic Clive Barnes once said. "The most terrifying thing is what people do want." Jerry Springer--The Opera proclaims that what people want is emotional and spiritual fulfillment and that Springer-style trash TV brings them closer to that love, or at least a dream of it. Perhaps we all want our Jerry Springer moment--an ecstatic, violent collision of the sacred and the profane. This show won't get Jerry Springer reinstated at Channel Five, and it's certainly not for everyone. But its bold, entertaining take on a vulgar cultural phenomenon attains a high level of artistry.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chris Corsentino.

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