Singing and Zinging

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 29, 2008

How low can you sink and still achieve nirvana? You can find the answer in "Jerry Springer: The Opera," which, in Studio Theatre's thrillingly down-and-dirty production, brings an audience to something like a state of musical-theater bliss.

The show, directed with a no-holds-barred sense of wickedness by Keith Alan Baker with an assist from Matthew Gardiner, is, as billed, "The Jerry Springer Show" set to ornate dirges, hymns and recitative. But while the long-running TV program regularly exploits the weaknesses of the exhibitionists and voyeurs among us, the go-for-broke parody does television one better. It takes the restraints off whatever meager amount of modesty the FCC requires and turns Springer's program into an even more turbulent cesspool of the most outrageous acts and vilest types of language.

Thus do sopranos and baritones, stripped down to bras and panties and, in a couple of cases, far kinkier outfits, sing coarse odes to misogyny, scatological perversion and pole-dancing. The rabidness of Springer's show is tailor-made for the emotional intensity of opera. In angelic-sounding arias, the guests spew torrents of profanity; in one inspired sequence, the enunciation of a monosyllabic barnyard epithet is stretched hilariously over several minutes of music.

If by the end of Act 1 "Jerry Springer: The Opera" still appears to you to display even the tiniest shred of decency, Act 2 will take care of that. You'll get no spoilers here, but it's important to note that the holiest concepts and figures in Christian theology come in for the same level of scathing lampoon as do the more routine sorts of visitors to Jerry's set.

Those who would take offense at such transgressions-in-the-name-of-comedy have been warned. By transposing "Jerry" into opera -- and by "opera" you should get by now that we're talking about something closer to Eric Idle than Mozart -- the show's British creators, Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas, mean to poke a satirical stick at everything sacred. What's being ridiculed here, though, is not spirituality so much as that other American religion, me-me-me-ism, the inalienable right to sell your soul to the camera, the belief that no matter the sin or shame, every one of us deserves our own studio audience.

And we in the audience of Studio's first-floor Metheny space are happier the more degraded the spectacle becomes. The piece boasts 34 actors and an eight-piece orchestra -- the most ambitious offering the company's supposedly junior offshoot, Studio 2ndStage, has ever produced. It also happens to be one of the most completely satisfying musical productions by any Washington theater in years. Though virtually none of the performers are members of the professional union Actors' Equity -- only the two smashing leads, Lawrence Redmond, as Jerry, and Bobby Smith, as his warm-up man, Jonathan, are Equity actors -- Baker has somehow enveloped the entire cast in a cocoon of comic accomplishment.

As a result, the singers, a number of whom have performed with Washington National Opera and other companies, portray the cadre of obscene, wretched and lamentable guests with astonishing ease and abandon. (Is it that these archetypal narcissists are in our national bloodstream? They are essayed here with far more conviction than was showcased in the original 2003 London production.)

The unmatchable first act of "Jerry Springer: The Opera" comprises Jerry-style encounters with the guests, and across the board the performances rise to the challenge. (The second act, a tad overwrought, takes us to the infernal realm of Dante -- with a guest appearance by Jerry's ultimate sparring partner, Beelzebub, also played by Smith.) Many of the actors harvest bales of laughter, but a special place in the parody pantheon must be reserved for Aaron Reeder, playing an embittered transsexual whose withering worldview is summed up in his number, "Talk to the Hand."

Not even Reeder's turn, however, prepares you for the gumption and spirit of Ron Curameng. Playing a man with a truly off-putting secret sexual desire, he gets, er, dumped with the evening's most peculiar assignment. It's a testament to his good humor -- and his skill -- that he handles it with such panache.

Aided by his set designer Giorgos Tsappas, Baker expertly converts the Metheny into Jerry's own studio; Erik Trester's apt video projections supply useful embroidery. Even smarter is the strategic deployment of 18 actors who as a group make up one of the most important elements of Springer's show: his peanut gallery, the taunting audience members who pour gasoline on the rage and other pathologies of guests. They are let loose on the Metheny as if they were Jerry's malevolent kids.

What holds this mayhem together is the idea that while Jerry may profess not to judge his guests, his culpability in making a carnival out of all this woe and dysfunction is being scrutinized. This may not be the most profound premise, but it provides a framework for the operatic investigation of a dark impulse that TV in this country has exported to the world.

Redmond's Jerry is the other essential glue. Wearing a thick mop of silver-blond hair and a pair of red-framed eyeglasses, Redmond portrays the host as an amused, almost cerebral onlooker -- he's the only non-singing character -- who adds his own acidic commentary to the ludicrous confessions of his guests. The remarks remind you of Springer's intelligence, but they're also tinged with condescension and sometimes, cruelty. It's hard to imagine the musical being half as good without this elegant pivotal performance.

He's balanced marvelously by Smith's smarmy, eager-to-please Jonathan, the guy who gets the crowd revved up and brews his own opera of resentment. It, and his return engagement as Satan, show this fine musical-comedy actor off to best advantage. Oily doesn't begin to describe the effect; Smith on this occasion is like an entire barrel of crude.

The show zips along, courtesy of Baker's sense of pacing and Gardiner's terrific choreography, which at times propels us into the dizzier neighborhoods that are home to the likes of Monty Python and Mel Brooks; the Act 1 climax is a kind of homage to the jaw-dropping "Springtime for Hitler." The short and the long of it is that in "Jerry Springer: The Opera," vulgarity is raised to a lively art.

Jerry Springer: The Opera, music by Richard Thomas, music and lyrics by Stewart Lee and Thomas. Directed by Keith Alan Baker. Choreography and co-direction, Matthew Gardiner; lighting, Justin Thomas; costumes, Kristopher Castle; music direction, Christopher Youstra; fight director, Casey Kaleba. With Florrie Bagel, Patricia Portillo, Mary Gresock, Russell Sunday, Melynda Burdette, Kristin Jepperson, Janine Gulisano-Sunday, Rachel Zampelli, Michael Nansel. About 2 hours 40 minutes. Through Aug. 17 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. Call 202-332-3300 or visit

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