David Bedella and Harvey Keitel
in Jerry Springer -- the Opera
(© Bruce Glikas)
David Bedella and Harvey Keitel
in Jerry Springer -- the Opera
(© Bruce Glikas)
Shocking. Exciting. Tasteless. Repetitive. Blasphemous. Exhilarating. A collection of adjectives -- admittedly sometimes contradictory ones -- is the simplest way to describe Jerry Springer - the Opera, which is getting its belated New York premiere via Jason Moore's first-rate (and sadly, two-night) concert staging at Carnegie Hall. What's most remarkable about Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas' "opera" -- I'm more tempted just to call it a musical -- is how much of what shouldn't work in the first act actually does. And if the second act's ambition can't quite match its execution, the overall experience remains one of the most original pieces of theater I've seen in a very long time.

Original may be considered an odd adjective by some, since the first act virtually recreates an actual episode of Jerry Springer, the TV talkfest in which the seemingly mild-mannered host (Harvey Keitel) oversees a circus-like atmosphere, complete with a group of soul-baring, lower-class guests and a motley studio audience (sung by a chorus of nearly 20). The in-studio crowd, all too ready to cheer on even a scintilla of violence between the warring factions, is riled up even further by warm-up guy Jonathan (the sensational David Bedella, the only holdover from the show's original London production).

The episode in question introduces people with secrets they're reluctant to reveal to their loved ones: Dwight (Luke Grooms) has three lovers: his fiancée Peaches (Patricia Phillips), her drugged-out best friend Zandra (Linda Balgord), and a transsexual named Tremont (Max von Essen); Montel (Lawrence Clayton) has been indulging his diaper-wearing fetish with Baby Jane (Laura Shoop) to the horror of his straight-laced partner Andrea (Emily Skinner); and trashy-looking Shwantel (Katrina Rose Dideriksen) wants to be a pole dancer, much to the chagrin of her redneck husband Chucky (Sean Jenness), whose participation in a certain racial hate group is the biggest secret of all -- and whose surprise (tap-dancing!) appearance on the show triggers a chain of events that leads to Jerry's shooting.

The overwhelming majority of the show's lyrics (which were occasionally rendered unintelligible) are simply unprintable, but if there's a four-letter word missing from Lee and Thomas' libretto, it escapes me. The music (superbly conducted by Stephen Oremus) freely borrows from a panoply of inspirations from grand opera to rap. Still, the pair is capable of writing sweeping, gorgeous, theatrical melodies matched by words of plaintive longing -- such as Andrea's "I Want to Sing Something Beautiful" and Shawntel's "I Just Want to Dance" -- that add an extra dimension to these potential cartoon characters; and. the actors, most notably Shoop, Phillips, Dideriksen, and von Essen (who looks damn good in those fishnets), also do their utmost to add their own touches of humanity.

In the second act, Jerry -- who may or may not yet be dead -- is dragged down to Hell by Jonathan, who's really Satan. He gives Jerry one slim chance at redemption by hosting a special episode designed to get an apology from Jesus (Clayton, again), who proves to be far less forgiving than one might imagine (and a little bit gay!). But despite appearances by Adam and Eve, the Virgin Mary, and ultimately God, the epic battle between Heaven and Hell plays second fiddle to Jerry's own crises. He's not only trying to save himself from an extremely unpleasant eternity (including barbed wire stuck painfully up a certain orifice), but trying to make sense of a life that has seen him go from powerful politician -- Springer was once mayor of Cincinnati -- to a man whose primary job in life is to "just read the cue cards." It's an intriguing premise, but it's simply given short-shrift here.

The rather daring (and presumably audience-grabbing) casting of Keitel as Springer turns out to be misguided. Even granting the concept that this iconic actor has decided to play Springer as a guy having a really bad day (even before he's shot), Keitel doesn't muster even an ounce of warmth, fake or otherwise, that the talk show host needs to be successful or likeable. His considerable dramatic chops do help add some gravitas in the second act, but the characterization needs a little more dimension.

True, that could come in time -- Keitel and the cast had a mere two weeks of rehearsal -- if the project moves forward to Broadway. I'm not sure there's a large-scale American audience for such a profane if often hilarious piece of theater -- trust me, the show truly does make Avenue Q look like Sesame Street -- but it would be wonderful if more people were given the opportunity to experience this one-of-a-kind work.