note: entire contents copyright 2009 by Beverly Creasey
Hell, it seems, is hot property all over town: THE DAMNED are playing the Paradise. Don Juan is headed to hell at the Schubert Theatre and JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA is feeling the heat at the Boston Center for the Arts. In case you haven’t heard (Have you been under a rock?) JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA is getting a high voltage outing at SpeakEasy Stage (playing through May 30th). Yes, it’s an opera (with bits of musical theater mixed in)---and yes, every other word in the libretto is f**k. The others aren’t so nice, either, for that matter but Sir Michael Tippett went there with his Black power opera, THE ICE BREAK, some forty years ago. The chorus chants a repetitive “Motherf**ker” in THE ICE BREAK and Tippett was knighted by Queen Elizabeth--- so who knows what lies in store for JERRY SPRINGER’s Aussie creators, Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee!
If you’re an opera fan like me, you’ll be fascinated by the classical part of the score which begins with Bach, traverses Handel, mimics Purcell and soars like Floyd, Tippett and Britten, not to mention a Kyrie Eleison which morphs into, of course, “Jerry Elieson!”
JERRY SPRINGER THE OPERA’s claim to fame is its outrageous juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. It’s unnerving to hear a coloratura soprano like Ariana Valdes hitting those exquisite high notes with execrable lyrics on her silver tongue. It doesn’t hurt the laughs, either, that all dolled up as Baby Jane, she looks a lot like Beverly Sills. If you’re a fan of NOMI (If you’re not, Google him on YouTube and you will be), you’ll recognize an otherworldly, breathy aria from Purcell’s KING ARTHUR which becomes even more bizarre, if such a thing is possible, in JERRY SPRINGER.)
Almost all the refugees from shock talk television (the pole dancer, the transvestite, the masochists and sadists) voice their inner demons in the coarsest of arias.(I had trouble making out all the foul language--- which now that I think about it may be a blessing--- because the vocal cords distort in the stratosphere. Perhaps SpeakEasy could borrow Lyric Opera’s subtitle technology, employed for that very reason even when an opera is sung in English… Just a thought.)
Thomas says the very first incarnation of JERRY SPRINGER was a piece for himself and ten hand puppets. The mind boggles. Even in its current milieu, it’s mind boggling. What evidently makes it popular is its cheek. Audiences can’t believe what they’re hearing and that alone makes them laugh. The satire is clever --- but operatic length is difficult to sustain once the pony has performed its trick.
Director Paul Daigneault and music director Dan Rodriguez keep interest afloat with charismatic performances by Timothy John Smith (as the warm-up man turned devil), Luke Grooms (as a cheating husband and God!) and Ariana Valdes in two show stopping roles.
Joining baritone Wesley Thomas (as a confederate-flag-wearing KKK rider) and Michael Fennimore as Springer are local favorites Brian Robinson (in Seth Bodie’s oversized diaper costume) and Kerry Dowling and Amelia Broom (both in Valkyrie getup). They all, surprisingly, hold their own alongside opera singers like Thomas. Jared Troilo and Joelle Lurie, too, add to the pandemonium. Choreographer David Connolly keeps the chorus hopping on Eric Levenson’s talk-show-converted-to-hell set --- glowing sinister red, of course, under Karen Perlow’s lights.
My favorite tongue-in-cheek quote from composer Thomas is “We’re bringing opera to a wider audience, so they can hate it too.” My audience seemed to love it. Go figure.