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By Ben Brantley

February 22nd, 2018

Is New York finally ready to receive that great American messiah whom the masses hail as “Je-e-e-e-erry?” I mean the title character of the British-born musical “Jerry Springer — The Opera,” which opened on Thursday night in a divinely wrought, all-American reincarnation at the Pershing Square Signature Center.

This sacred and profane oratorio of angel-winged songs about heaven, hell and a talk-show host has taken a while to find a berth in Manhattan. But now that it’s here, it soars like never before, in a New Group production that fully finds the compassion within this singular show’s surface satire.

An Olivier Award-winning hit in London nearly 15 years ago, “Jerry Springer — The Opera” has made only one previous appearance in New York, and it was short and fraught. That was in 2008, when Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s show — which portrays a typical day of on-camera bad behavior on a tabloid talk show and its eternal afterlife — was staged for two concert performances at Carnegie Hall.

If this was regarded as testing the waters by potential Broadway producers, those waters turned out to be muddy and treacherous. The columnist Cindy Adams excoriated the show as “the pits. The lowest. The slimiest.”

Protesters thronged a stretch of West 57th Street with signs warning that blasphemy was happening inside Carnegie Hall. Though the show has since been staged across the country, those provincial Americans known as New Yorkers have been unable to see it in a fully-staged version in their own backyard.

Until now. And strange though it may seem, the delay may be to the advantage of this latest staging, immaculately directed by John Rando and sung with incandescence by its 17-member cast. I say “strange” because you wouldn’t expect graceful aging from a work pegged to a real-life celebrity like Mr. Springer, whose notoriety as a trash TV presenter peaked years ago.

Yet “Jerry Springer — The Opera,” which stars Terrence Mann in the title role and Will Swenson as his infernal nemesis, now reveals itself to be a work of stirring prophecy, a hilarious and unexpectedly touching origin portrait of how we became who we are today.

As a confessional forum for dysfunctional and dispossessed Americans, Mr. Springer’s show may have since been eclipsed by the semi-scripted melodramas of reality television.

But the impulses that propel seemingly ordinary people to commit psychological (and, in some cases, literal) stripteases before audiences of millions are examined with a vividness that feels stingingly fresh. And then there’s Mr. Thomas’s and Mr. Lee’s proposition that a contestant-baiting TV host might be perceived by his public as someone fit to rule the world.

But until “Donald Trump — The Opera” comes along (shudder), “Jerry Springer” may be the richest theatrical means we have for channeling the heaving American Id that put Mr. Trump in the White House. And there’s the nifty dividend that “Jerry Springer” also sings volumes about the enduring appeal of the musical as a popular art form.

But first a trigger warning, in deference to those who protested at Carnegie Hall: This show has what is surely the highest ratio of obscenities of any mainstream musical ever. Make that any mainstream theater production period. (Sorry about that, David Mamet.)

What’s more, Anglo-Saxon words that are still regularly bleeped on radio and television have been set to melodies that recall Baroque choral prayer song as well as soulful Broadway ballads. Those uttering these curse words include Jesus and his heavenly father.

The juxtaposition of holy music and unholy lyrics might seem too facile by half; it’s a treatment long applied by giggly school children to church hymns. But this show uses the disparity between words and music to suggest how inadequate most people’s vocabularies are in conveying their most ardent longings.

Music is what captures the skyward-reaching, ineffable yearnings of the characters — the triple-timing bisexual lug, the man with the diaper fetish, the housewife who wants to be a pole dancer. The pure, pulsing beauty of Mr. Thomas’s score (he and Mr. Lee collaborated on the book and lyrics) hooks us subliminally, while reminding us how classic American musicals are so often all about aspiration.

The aspirations in “Jerry Springer” are a little less classic than finding love or triumphing over adversity. What drives the denizens of the Springer universe is, quite simply, the desire to exercise their constitutional right to be famous.

The show’s first half takes place in a studio (created by the set designer Derek McLane as a space that embraces us all), where a live audience responds with vim and vitriol to the procession of “losers” who are Jerry’s featured guests. The second half takes us to the furnace room known as hell, where Jerry is asked to do “conflict resolution” (which was never in his contract) for special, otherworldly guests who are way over his pay grade.

That’s it for plot, and on paper, it can sound like both too much and not enough. What makes “Jerry Springer” shimmer so unexpectedly isn’t its satirical side, the novelty of which wears off quickly.

It’s the upward arc of its music, which finds a plaintive hunger to loom large, if only for a moment, that gives lost souls something like nobility. As the characters reveal their sensational secrets, they occasionally let us in (via time-stopping interludes) on even more deeply buried secrets, which disarm with their simplicity.

Even the most lurid forms of behavior are accorded the same apotheosizing gloss. A script note about a sequence in which a man sings of his scatological sex life says it all: “The section has nothing to do with pooping and everything to do with the transcending.”

Jerry is cannily embodied by Mr. Mann as the heir to Andy Warhol’s affectlessness in facilitating the quest for celebrity. A one-time aide to Robert Kennedy and a politician himself, Jerry knows he could have been a different kind of contender, which places him more firmly in the company of his guests than he perhaps realizes.

Jerry’s warm-up man, Jonathan (Mr. Swenson), is both fawning and resentful, coarsely seductive and mad as hell. That he has a lot in common with the hero of “Paradise Lost” is something you don’t realize until the second act. But Mr. Swenson’s desperation-edged, showman’s bravura sets up his character’s second-act transformation perfectly.

The rest of the cast is, in a word, sublime, in their Walmart-esque wardrobes (designed by Sarah Laux). They all sing with operatic grandeur and lyrical finesse — especially the soloists Jill Paice, Tiffany Mann, Justin Keyes and Luke Grooms — without ever for a second condescending to or trivializing the people they play. One easy wink and “Jerry Springer” could deflate.

Mr. Rando’s production, which is choreographed by Chris Bailey with a wit that finds the patterns in chaos, never lets that happen. It insists that the audience for “Jerry Springer — The Opera” and Jerry Springer the talk show are ultimately one.

This intimate staging, in which Jerry’s next guest could well be sitting near you, never lets us think that we’re better than the suckers onstage. For while it may have its nominal stars, “Jerry Springer” is really all about the American people of today — we the people, they the people and, yes, even you.

This review originally appeared in The New York Times.  The original can be read HERE

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