Brian Simmons and Jeremy Rill
in Jerry Springer -- The Opera
(© Chris Cosentino)
Brian Simmons and Jeremy Rill
in Jerry Springer -- The Opera
(© Chris Cosentino)
One might have expected the North American premiere of Jerry Springer -- The Opera, the multi-award-winning London musical sensation, to take place on Broadway rather than at Bailiwick Repertory, a Chicago Off-Loop theater of fewer than 200 seats. Even here, the show packs in 29 performers and an eight-person orchestra. No wonder Main Stem producers passed, wary of the cost of mounting a Broadway-sized production.

Perhaps the real reason wasn't money, but that Broadway producers were leery of the show's content. To put it mildly, this is a highly scatological piece of work, every bit as vulgar and lurid as the trash TV talk show that inspired it. Furthermore, unlike TV, the four letter words aren't bleeped out -- and very popular words they are in the book and lyrics by Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas (who is also the composer). Indeed, the F-word becomes poetry beyond even David Mamet's imagination, at one point used in a Handel-like run of competitive male coloratura between a baritone and a tenor as Satan and Jesus. Oh, did I mention that the show also mocks Christian ideology?

Not for the easily offended, Jerry Springer is shockingly funny and full of theatrical surprises. When hooded Ku-Klux-Klan members unexpectedly break into a tap dance, it brings down the house. Moreover, Thomas' music is a dazzling pastiche that draws on everything from Bach motet to Broadway song-and-dance to mock Andrew Lloyd Webber to liturgical music. The program lists 37 numbers, many of which contain multiple bits and pieces; as a result, few musical riffs, songs, or ariettas last more than one minute.

Act I portrays a typical Jerry Springer TV show. The yahoo audience hopes to see bare breasts, "pimps in bad suits," and "a chick with a dick"; Jerry (played by the sardonic Brian Simmons), reading from his signature cards, doesn't disappoint. His guests include an engaged man who's cheating with both his fiancée's best friend and a transvestite, a man with an infantilism fetish, and a wannabe pole dancer married to an objecting redneck husband. Springer -- the only non-singing role in the show -- is occasionally twinged by his conscience in the form of a personal Valkyrie. But he dismisses her, stating, "It's easy to occupy the moral high ground. What's more difficult is to occupy the moral low ground."

In Act II, Satan forces the surprisingly passive Springer to host a special show in Hell, during which Satan confronts Jesus. Hardly divine, Jesus is berated by his mother, Mary, a surprise guest. God himself, dressed in an all-white pimp suit with a voluminous white fur coat, intervenes. This leads to an all-out brawl. In the end, Springer brokers peace by reminding everyone that good and evil, give and take, yin and yang are the eternal and necessary polarities. With God and Mary looking on, Springer then "marries" Satan and Jesus, who has confessed to being a little gay.

Jerry Springer -- The Opera is a tumultuous, physically demanding show, but director David Zaks, musical director Gary Powell, and choreographer Brenda Didier have managed to tame the bear and make it sing and dance a fine tune. As she has before, Didier makes dancers of a non-dancing cast by honing simple steps in well-ordered lines, from which she further extracts a dozen tap dancers.

Powell has extracted a really rich sound from his eight-piece band, bright with brasses and burnished with woodwinds, and has honed his young singers to a fine edge. Falsetto pianissimos, tight-harmony quartets, and contrapuntal choruses all shine.

Since Bailiwick is housed in an old, brick-walled, light-industry building, it's easy for scenic designer Ryan Trupp to make it look like Springer's warehouse TV set, essentially providing an empty stage for the large cast. Particularly outstanding are baritone Jeremy Rill as Warm-Up Man/Satan, mezzos Jenna Cramer and Shannon Strodel as Valkyrie and Gloomy Nurse Soloist, and spinto tenor Joe Takarz as Cheating Fiancé/God.

Jerry Springer -- The Opera is most certainly not a show for all tastes, but even those who dislike it must admit that Bailiwick's production is an astonishing achievement for a troupe with such limited resources.