Saturday, February 19, 2011

Jerry Springer the Opera

JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA incites reaction at Beck

Operas are noted for making epics of slight stories, and are often staged with great bravado and enormous pomp. This fits what's going on at the Beck Center.

The award winning JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA is on stage in the facility's Studio Theatre. Outside, on opening night, members of America Needs Fatima, an action-oriented Catholic group which protests against works it views as blasphemous, were trying to dissuade theatre-goers to forsake the show.

Why the picketing? As one of the protestors, who hadn't seen the play stated, “The show is profane.” It might be if anyone could agree on what the abstract word “profane” means. That minor point aside, the protest seems to have backfired. Instead of discouraging attendance, the publicity has insured a sold-out first three weeks and the strong possibility of the show's extension.

As Beck's Artistic Director, Scott Spence, summarized it, “We have the right to express ourselves. They have the right to picket.” And, he could have added, “Thanks, we couldn't have bought better or more publicity!”

So, what's all the shouting about? JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA is a British musical written by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee. It is a fictional depiction of Springer's TV show, which sensationalizes society's extremes and misfits. Such subjects as cheating lovers, overdone plastic surgery, adults wearing diapers, and cross dressing are displayed through such devices as wrestling women and a troupe of tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan members. Oh, and yes, there is an archangel, the devil, Adam and Eve, Jesus (oh, my!).

It's an opera because the story line is almost all sung and everything is bigger than life. Actually, it's bigger than bigger than life. This is a farce, it is a parody, and, for those with a sense of humor and who don't take life overly seriously, it can be fun.

The show ran for 609 performances in London and then toured the UK. It won four Laurence Olivier Awards including Best New Musical. And, yes, even in the UK there were pickets and protests! (Gee, there appear to be zealots around the world who think it is their duty to influence the way everyone should think and act.)

In the US, the show has been performed in Las Vegas and at Carnegie Hall in New York. And, yes, there were pickets there as well. It has now moved on to productions at small professional theatres, along with the expected “Honk for Jesus” sign wavers.

Beck's production doesn't light up the stage. As with any director of farcical satire, director Scott Spence had to make a vital decision…do the play as extreme exaggeration or make it so serious that it becomes outrageous on its own. He decided to take the middle ground, thus losing much of the ridiculousness, and resulting in a slowly paced, overly long show. There are some very funny parts, but, as a whole, much of the production is emotionally flat.

The cast, with a few exceptions, have excellent singing voices. Diana Farrell, a trained opera singer, hits all the high notes as the adorable Baby Jane. Darryl Lewis, in the dual role of the diaper-wearing Jesus and Montel, sings well, and generally hits the characterizations. Ryan Bergeron is a hoot as Tremont, a cross dresser whose tube top keeps falling down and the Archangel Gabriel (yes, he also appears). Gilgamesh Taggett is the devil incarnate as Satan (boo!). Lissy Gulick, who is creationing a career of playing eccentric old ladies, makes for a delightful purse swinging mother of a wanna-be pole dancer. Joanna May Hunkins has pitch problems as Shawntel and Eve. Mathew Wright's talent was basically wasted as Springer, who doesn't sing or dance in the show, mainly playing straight man to the drama queens.

Probably the funniest segment of the evening was Satan and Jesus's duet, F*** You Talk in which the only word, in what is about five minutes of constant singing, was the repetition of the F word.

Bryan Bird's orchestra sounded fine, supporting rather than drowning out the singers, but the vocal blendings were often off. Martin C├ęspedes' choreography was creative, but, unfortunately, due to the postage stamp-sized stage, tons of set pieces, and some uncoordinated cast members, didn't always work. The movement highlights were in the action curtain call.

Trad Bruns' scenic and lighting designs worked well, as did Jenniver Sparano's costumes and Jerry Sgro’s visual graphics.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Beck's JERRY SPRINGER, THE OPERA, is a less than exciting production which will appeal to a nich audience. Hopefully, as the show runs, and it should have a long run due to the publicity garnered by the ill- focused pickets, the cast will let loose and have more fun, which will result in the anticipated gales of laughter.