Saturday, February 19, 2011

Jerry Springer: The Opera, Beck Center

(Gilgamesh Taggett as Satan, lording it over Matthew Wright as Jerry Springer)

Most of us have known people who use variations of the word “fuck” not just as a verb or a noun, but also as an adjective, adverb, preposition and conjunction. However, for those who swim in a slightly more elevated gene pool, you can get a crash course in fuckology from Jerry Springer: The Opera, now at the Beck Center.

But obscenities are just the tip of sleazy iceberg that lurks just below. Replicating the odious TV talk-show-cum-wrestling-match run by the former mayor of Cincinnati, there is a predictable parade of disturbed cultural outliers—from chicks with dicks to the KKK and from pole dancers to a hefty dude in a diaper.

This extravaganza of deviance, all sung-through as an opera with arias and such, is raucously hilarious early on. But it ultimately tries to wrench out some life truths through a pointed hazing of religious hypocrisies, and that’s a difficult pearl to rescue from the steaming pile of excreta that’s come before. While you may not buy the forced moralizing, you will experience an exhilarating ride through the underbelly of our society, accompanied by a few excellent performances and voices.

This wildly ambitious endeavor features a fulsome operatic score by Richard Thomas, with book and lyrics by Thomas and Stewart Lee. Thomas, by the way, is the librettist for another culture-vulture opera, Anna Nicole, that is now playing the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

If you’ve ever seen The Jerry Springer Show, you know that the audience is a major part of the turmoil. And so it is here as an on-stage scrum of trailer park bottom-feeders yell out insults, taunts and random iterations of “fuck you” to anyone who appears on stage. And as for hand gestures, there are more flipped birds on stage than at a winner-take-all chicken burn-off.

In the second act, the action turns more religious and symbolic as Jerry, after being attacked earlier, is forced by Satan to do a hellfire version of his show so Satan and "little-bit-gay" Jesus can Springer-ize their dicey relationship. (Note: This is the part of the production that inspired the pissed-off Christian demonstrators who were picketing the theater before the curtain.)

Happily, there are trained singers in the cast who turn Thomas’s music into some lovely moments. That is, if you can believe it’s lovely when diaper man Montel (Darryl Lewis) sings lilting lyrics such as: “Some like to eat their lunch off a whore’s beaver/I just like to shit my pants.”

In two substantial roles of Peaches (a cheated-upon wife) and Baby Jane (a female counterpart to Montel), Diana Farrell employs her well-trained pipes to beautiful effect. Also excellent vocally are Leslie Andrews as Zanda and Mary (yes, that Mary), and Shelley Thorpe as Andrea and Archangel Michael.

Other members of this large 23-person cast have some bright moments, while the rest basically hang on for dear life. Only Joanna May Hunkins as pole-dancer Shawntel and Eve (yes, that Eve) finds herself in vocal areas she should probably avoid.

As the ringmaster Jerry Springer, Matthew Wright brings a sense of slightly baffled bewilderment to the role. And that feels spot-on, since the real Jerry never knows what any show’s topic or guests are until he shows up on stage. Wright is balanced perfectly by Gilgamesh Taggett as both Jerry’s lickspittle warm-up man and later as a devilishly intense, red-suited Satan.

Director Scott Spence and choreographer Martin Cespedes forge a tight ensemble production that ripples with energy. That spark keeps things burning when the on-going tsunami of swear words and strange behavior threatens to extinguish the bonfire ignited in the first act.

Jerry Springer: The Opera

Through March 27 at the Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood, 216-521-2540

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