Think about it for a bit and you’ll realize that Jerry Springer’s televised shoutspiels are the very stuff of which opera is made. You’ve got your tissue-thin, sob-story plots, your outrageous characters, your outsized emotions and the characters’ tendency to strip-search their motives and analyze their most private thoughts in public — all that plus the simmering threat (and bloodthirsty anticipation) of violence.
Sounds like most of the repertoire at Cincinnati Opera.
Now, give that the sort of exuberant, take-no-prisoners production that director Alan Patrick Kenny and his New Stage Collective minions have used for Jerry Springer: The Opera and — despite some timing and focus blunders in Act One and an Act Two finale that overstays its welcome — you have an evening of mocking, stomping, slap-dazzle fun.
Imagine an opera that earns belly-laughs. Think, if you can, about a dozen tap-dancing Ku Klux Klansmen. Consider a bisexual Lothario who’s triple-timing his fiancée with her “crack whore” best friend and a transvestite in elevator boots. Think about a heroine of operatic proportions who realizes her ambition to be a pole dancer in a strip club and makes a thoroughly provocative job of it. Think about a singing Satan in a red brocade tuxedo, demanding that Springer mediate an apology for him for being tossed out of heaven and a whining, near-naked Jesus with sparkle dust in his hair.
Now, imagine this fracas revealed in witty lyrics (Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas) sung to a likeable, listenable score (Thomas) featuring a couple of tunes (“This Is My Jerry Springer Moment,” “It Ain't Easy Being Me”) that are sufficiently accessible and memorable to hum later. It’s a mammoth undertaking for New Stage.
Kenny packs the narrow loft space on Main Street with a dozen full-voiced principles (nary a dud among them), a well-tuned chorus of 13, eight musicians, an army of technicians and, on opening night, a sell-out audience of 105. In the title role one of Cincinnati’s favorite actors, Nick Rose, doesn’t sing but nicely catches Springer’s wry, bantering tone and clipped delivery.
Outside on opening night, 30 or so orderly picketers chanted, held up banners and protested perceived obscenity and blasphemy in Springer, holding fast even during a brief rain shower. (See the CityBeat news story about the controversy here.)
Inside, about 25 minutes into the performance, an electrical glitch blacked out the stage and caused a 20-minute delay. Glitch fixed, the show resumed with spirits undampened, though focus and pace remained a little rattled until intermission.
Divine intervention was not suspected. Subsequent performances will likely run smoothly.
Since its Edinburgh Fringe Festival premiere (with Cincinnati’s former Mayor in enthusiastic attendance) and its 600-plus performance run in London, people have been counting expletives and debating whether Springer is obscene. In thought and word, yeah, probably. In deed, debatable.
Nobody gets naked. There’s little suggestive behavior. But obscenity should be a broader issue than nudity and four-letter words. My Webster's says, first, that obscene means “disgusting to the senses.” That’s gonna depend on who does the sensing. Secondly, obscene means “abhorrent to morality or virtue.”
The libretto might mock some viewers’ narrow construction of “morality” and “virtue” as referring primarily to sexual proclivities, but it does not “abhor” a broader morality or seek to pervert virtue. Thirdly, Webster's says that something obscene is “designed to incite lust or depravity.” That’s a hoot.
Springer is designed to incite laughter and to entertain. At New Stage it succeeds. Operatically. Amen.
JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA, presented by New Stage Collective, continues through Aug. 3. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.