Sunday, February 27, 2011

Hellacious Hijinks

(Satan, top, played by Gilgamesh Taggett, sings to Jerry [Matthew Wright] in "Jerry Springer: The Opera" at  the Beck Center for the Arts. Photo courtesy of the Beck Center.)
Since my selected deities can be found on Turner Classic Movies and Mount Olympus, I personally find it hard to understand how anyone could take offense at the Rabelaisian winks that permeate "Jerry Springer: The Opera," which is at the Beck Center through April 17. Its creators, Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, have found a perfect gimmick to carry the show from beginning to end - a British bird's eye view of American trash culture engaged in a merry gambol with Dante Inferno paraphernalia, all sung in faux-opera fashion. I fail to see how anyone with the slightest bit of imagination couldn't nourish a crush on the work with such a Marxian (Brothers, not Karl) spirit.

Street gangs can plie through "West Side Story" Manhattan, Nixon can sing baritone in China and Ray Walston's fey vaudevillian Satan can soft-shoe through "Damn Yankees," so there's no reason why talk-show host Jerry Springer can't do shtick with Lucifer. Some of the other wonderful conceipts include a fuck fugue sung by Satan and an African-African Jesus, a requiem performed by talk-show attendees who in reality probably never heard of one, and a tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan. The score ranges from skillful opera parody to Motown sass and Broadway pizazz.

(An earlier singing and dancing Satan: Ray Walston in "Damn Yankees.")

This is a piece fueled on perpetual chutzpah. Act I is a recreation of an archetypal episode of "The Jerry Springer Show" populated with the obligatory transsexual, a crack whore, a spanking fetishist in Baby Jane regalia and a loving fiancee who wants to be treated like an infant. It all culminates with Springer getting a taste of his own medicine: an assassin's bullet. Act II begins in Purgatory and proceeds to Hell, where Springer is blackmailed by Satan into hosting an episode of his show as a phantasmagorical TV spectacular.

From the polyester sheen of the divinely tawdry wigs to the authentic holes in the fishnet stockings, Beck Center has perfectly simulated the squalor that gives the work verisimilitude. The tiny Studio Theater is an ideal simulacrum of a cramped TV studio in B-movie Hell. Director Scott Spence has had the perspicacity to collect a passel of golden-throated singers who so effortlessly imitate the denizens of your local Walmart. And once again choreographer Martin Cespedes shows his flair for using movement to reveal the psyche of his performers, including that chorus of terpsichorean KKKers. He knows where misapplied polish would not only be superfluous, but also would damage the texture so essential to the show.

As the eponymous Springer, Matthew Wright has the timing of a Borscht Belt comedian and far more elegance and charisma than the original ever could imagine. The colorfully named Gilgamesh Taggett plays Satan as the ultimate pimp gone wild.  The cast is so convincing that it's hard to believe that the actors have not spent their entire lives in preparation being spanked, pole dancing and taking master courses in spousal abuse. Even perfect were the two bedraggled protesters outside the Beck Center.

The show is not to be mistaken with the long line of "Little Shop of Horrors"-inspired bubble-gum musical parodies that have proliferated off-Broadway. Instead, some wizards have given it a brain, a heart and the courage to thrive.

"Jerry Springer: The Musical" runs through Sunday, April 17 at the Beck Center. For tickets, call 216- 521-2540.

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