There’s no question that The Jerry Springer Show, now in its 22nd season, has all the mechanics of opera built right into it. The host plays God. He gamely separates the world into angels and devils, telling each of us where we stand. He castigates, tames, and doles out moral justice in a world that seems execrable: Chicks have dicks, straight men fall in love with transvestite prostitutes, a mother turns out to also be someone’s sister and brother. “Wait!” cries Jerry Springer, when the plot starts to unravel at his fingertips. “Give me a moment just to sort this out!”
Clearly, British comedians Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee were on to something when they wrote Jerry Springer: The Opera in 2003. It toured throughout the UK, incited many protests, and delighted fans with its sacrilege, shock tactics, and post-post-post-modern sensibility. Now it’s come to San Francisco for a month-long run at the old Victoria Theatre under the auspices of Ray of Light Theatre. M. Graham Smith directs an ensemble so large that cast members all but spill over the lip of the stage. They arrive holding votive candles. One is pregnant. Another has a beehive. A few wear daisy dukes and hoop earrings. Some have frosty eye shadow. Many sport leopard-print-everything. In the script, they have names like “Porntip Poonkang” (Lee Achacoso-Haskin), “Skid Sprankles” (Gregory Marks), and “Jamal” (Tony Maddox). Three beefy security guards emerged, modeled after Springer’s real sentinels. It’s a religious experience.
That’s the joke at the heart of this opera, and the writers beat it to a bloody pulp. They structured Act I much like a traditional Jerry Springer show. The theme is “dirty secrets,” — emphasis on dirty — and it escalates with each consecutive set of guests. There’s Peaches (Tracy Camp), whose husband, Dwight (Steve Hess) is in love with both her ho best friend, Zandra (Jordan Best), and a transsexual hooker (Timitio Artusio). There’s Montel (Chris Yorro), an otherwise normal-looking gentleman with a bizarre fetish. There’s Shawntel (Jessica Coker), a dowdy housewife who wants to tap into her inner-hoochie. There are men who beat their wives, women who pull off each other’s wigs, bitches who bitch-slap, audience members who jeer. There’s a Valkyrie (J. Conrad Frank), actually a giant, feathered drag queen who serves as the portal to Springer’s unconscious (sort of like the elevator shaft in Inception). There’s an almost church-like call-and-response between the guests and the audience. Zandra sings an aria about being young and having hope — until I got addicted to crack and dope.
Patrick Michael Dukeman makes an uncanny Jerry Springer. He’s got the coke bottle glasses, the condescending New York accent, the ability to put small-town Americans in their rightful place. (Recall that the real Jerry Springer was mayor of Cincinnati and tried to win the Democratic nomination for governorship before launching his tabloid career). Dukeman is the only character who never sings, and when you think about it, that makes sense. Without a real Jerry Springer running around gleefully instigating conflict, it would be just another opera.
Act II of the opera takes place in Hell, where Lucifer (Jonathan Reisfeld) attempts to settle scores with Jesus (Yorro), God (Hess), Adam (Manuel Caneri) and Eve (Coker). This idea also seems like a natural extension of the talk show. It’s the ultimate site of moral blandishments and damnation, a place that relies on absolutes of good and evil. It’s also the place where opera can become all the more operatic. Characters burst from the two-by-fours in Maya Linke’s skeletal set design, amid fog machines and hazy red light. The music gets better. While song-and-dance numbers in Act I mostly hew to a traditional Broadway template, Act II has more coloratura, more vivid harmonies, more high notes that damn near crack the ceiling. Last Saturday, Best let loose a piercing, soprano wail that elicited screams from the audience. In real life, the cast members represent all swaths of the opera spectrum, from genuine operetta divas to regulars at Martuni’s cabaret bar in the theater district. In Acts II and III, they show the full range of what they can do.
Like its source material, this Jerry Springer is not for the faint of heart. Not every progressive Bay Area viewer will cotton to a dancing troupe of Ku Klux Klan members, even if they do a good Fred Astaire shuffle. For that matter, not everyone will relish the blasphemous take on Judeo-Christian mythology. The Jerry Springer Opera is a gorgeous bit of musical theater, but it’s about as irreverent as you can get, short of necrophilia. That said, it’s also brilliant, and only a smidgen less entertaining than the actual Jerry Springer Show. Thomas and Lee knew how to speak volumes without saying very much. In fact, Jerry Springer articulates their whole raison d’etre when he talks about “holding a mirror up to society.” “That mirror thing” — he squeals — “I do it!” ;