Wo would have thought you could turn Jerry Springer's vulgar chat show into an opera? Who would have thought that Jerry Springer would give it his approval? Who would have thought that Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee's scatological Jerry Springer —The Opera would end up at the National Theatre and black market tickets would be selling for £150?
A satire on a cult trash television show has become a cult trash stage show. The opera, overthe-top and grossly overrated, has been on a roll ever since its workshops at Battersea and Edinburgh. It's now in the West End and on its way to America where I guess it will get a much rougher ride from church and critics than it did here.
Thomas's score is a burlesque of operatic conventions, drawing on Handel, Bach, Donizetti, Weill, Sondheim, Lloyd Webber, blues, gospel and pop. The music is often glorious. The singing is great. The libretto, however, is relentlessly foulmouthed and profane. It is this absurd incongruity between high art and low art that gives Lee's arresting production its sophisticated punch. All the singers are classically trained opera singers. The chorus is cast as a studio audience and they physically look like a typical trailer-trash crowd.
Jerry Springer is America's favourite talk show host — the king of sleaze — and he has made a highly profitable career out of his ability to encourage people to confess the most intimate and disgusting details of their lives on primetime television. His freakish guests include a mum who used to be a dad and a lap-dancing transsexual. A slob (Benjamin Blake sprawls in a studio armchair like a beached whale) is having an affair with two women and a transvestite. A big black man wants to be a baby and poop in his nappy. A housewife wants to be a pole dancer. "I don't solve problems," says Jerry, "I just televise them."
I shall be very surprised if the catch-phrase, "Dip me in chocolate and throw me to the lesbians" does not find its way into dictionaries of quotations. Some audiences are going to have difficulty with the constant use of the F-word. But it is the second half that is going to deeply offend a lot of people, and not just Christians. Springer, who hates violence (unless it is in a carefully controlled environment) is shot in a studio brawl and sent to a hell. Here, under tlutat of having barbed wire rammed up his backside, he has to adjudicate a debate on good and evil between Jesus (who is "a bit gay") and the devil, who wants an apology. God, Mary (with handbag) and Adam and Eve put in an appearance. God (played as a Liberace lookalike) sings, "It ain't easy being me." But it is easy to imagine the furore the opera would have unleashed if the bad taste had been at the expense of any faith other than Christian.
Michael Brandon, who has a good wig, looks uncannily like the real Jerry. smarmy, smooth and mild-mannered. The charismatic David Bandella
has a ball as Jerry's camp warm-up man, who turns out to be the devil. Bandella's performance is a star turn. The first act ends with a tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan (a cross bums upstage) which is no more offensive than the goose-stepping Nazis in "Springtime for Hitler" in the cult movie, The Producers. The finale has the whole cast as Jerry Springer clones tap dancing away, a sure-fire way of getting the audience on its feet and cheering. The management says the show is not suitable for children. Actually, it is much more likely that children are going to find the show is not suitable for their parents. Three years ago I much enjoyed James Mason's Blast!, an all-American celebration of instrumental music and indoor marching and it had all the precision and razzmatazz of a military parade. Blast! was a blast. Mason is back in town with Cyberjcun, another well-drilled, symmetrical, repetitive show that makes enormous musical and physical demands on his young cast. The gimmick is the musicians (all American graduates) not only play their instruments while marching up and down, but also while they are on their knees (Cossack fashion), on their stomachs, on their backs and upside down. They play while bouncing up and down on a trampoline (absurd), while clambering in and out of a revolving cage (ingenious) and while doing the splits (painful). Their stamina is amazing.
Jerry Springer — The Opera is at Cambridge Theatre. Box Office: 0870 890 1102. Cyberjam is at Queen's Theatre. Box Office: 0870 890 1110.