Actor Has Springer in His Step

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 20, 2008

After all his years in the business -- the acting classes, the academic degrees, the bit parts in small productions and the bigger roles in bigger shows, the highs and the lows, the yeses and the nos, the disappointments and the triumphs and the accolades -- the burning career question of the moment for Lawrence Redmond is this:

Can he be a Jerry Springer for the ages?

Okay, so it's a down-market talk-show host and not a complex O'Neill antihero he's been hired to play. Get a life! He's the lead, for gosh sakes! In a musical that convulsed London with its scathing lampoon of the sacred and its naughty embrace of the profane.

Yes, Redmond transforms himself into almost-but-not-quite-legendary Jerry in the Washington area premiere of "Jerry Springer: The Opera." The summer offering at Studio Theatre's oftentimes loosey-goosey 2ndStage, the satirical musical -- featuring a cast of 34 and a melodious passage with Jerry into purgatory -- begins performances Wednesday in Studio's largest space, the Metheny. Lock your doors, if you must. And please, hide the children.

For Redmond, who turns 50 this year, being cast as Jerry seems to be a tailor-made next step. A mainstay of Washington theater, he's an actor of expertly honed technique who is known in the rehearsal room for always doing his homework. "He is the utility infielder of this city," says Studio Artistic Director Joy Zinoman. And though there's a signature meticulousness to Redmond's performances, an audience member gets the whiff -- whether he's playing in Restoration comedy or Rodgers and Hammerstein -- of a more maniacal creature itching to jump out of his skin.

"I like him!" Redmond declares on an afternoon early in rehearsals, with a relish that suggests he has bonded not just with the character in the musical but also with a real-life person he's never met. Having boned up on Springer thanks to the host's 1998 autobiography, "Ringmaster," and through watching episodes of his lowest-common-denominator TV show, Redmond says he's come to appreciate Springer's native intelligence, the instincts that guided him from success in Ohio politics to an even wider celebrity in show business.

Later in the process, Redmond will confess to a more ambivalent reaction to Springer and the kind of tabloid television he's mastered with "The Jerry Springer Show." But what's challenging him at this early juncture is creating a Springer impression without doing an impersonation.

"My biggest problem is the voice," Redmond says, explaining the accent is affected by the diverse geography of Springer's life, from Brooklyn to Cincinnati to Hollywood. He's not exactly a dead ringer for Springer, either. (Harvey Keitel played him in a recent Carnegie Hall concert production.)

"If I had more hair," Redmond remarks on another day, "I'd dye it."

In "Jerry Springer: The Opera," the character of Jerry presides over a version of his syndicated show -- the scandalous, desperate-to-be-famous guests are played by singers, many of them with operatic training -- that becomes an inquisition on the morality of the genre, and on Jerry himself.

"Nobody does anything in a vacuum," Redmond says, referring to the way the Springer show became a success by exploiting the cravenness of its guests. "Even Jerry has to bear some responsibility. He may be right that this is a slice of American life. But understand there are consequences. When all is said and done, history is defined by what we do -- and what we choose not to do."

What Redmond himself chose, long ago, was the up-and-down life of an actor in a city with a close-knit, sometimes inbred theater community; his wife, Kathy, was a longtime stage manager at Studio, and they still live around the corner from the theater. He's versatile and thus hard to peg -- a blessing and a curse. For though he always seems to work -- and any avid theatergoer in these parts who doesn't recognize him simply hasn't been paying attention -- he's not achieved a kind of notoriety that guarantees him leading roles.

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