Jerry Springer: The Opera by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee
Has any opera/musical caused as many jaws to drop as this one? Not just at the constant obscenities, the blatant blasphemies, and the parade of amoral trash-can characters. What amazes is the breathtaking daring of the concept - an opera based on the Jerry Springer TV freak show!? – coupled with the rich brilliance of the score. Jaws dropped and ears tingled at the Sydney Opera House main concert hall when the 21 performers delivered superb 8-part operatic harmonies to such lines as “what the fucking fuck fuck”.
UK’s The Sun newspaper, ever studious about such things, counted 3168 f-words and 297 c-words. The Opera House audiences had no time to be shocked: they were laughing too hard.
Brits Richard Thomas (music and lyrics) and Stewart Lee (book and lyrics) devised this wickedly wonderful show for London’s Battersea Arts Centre in
2001. It stormed the Edinburgh Festival next year and was restaged and expanded by The National Theatre in 2003. A consequent television version brought down considerable Christian ire on the BBC - perhaps because Jesus appears as a large black man who wears nothing but nappies.
This Sydney showing was billed as a “concert performance” of the show, produced by the Opera House itself and stunningly directed by Gayle Edwards, though it’s hard to imagine it being done any bigger or better. Apart from the setting – adequately minimal - everything else was horribly perfect.
There were audio problems on the opening night but the remaining performances (only 4 in all!) were pitch-perfect. It’s a shock to discover the show is to travel no further, not even to Melbourne where enthusiasm would have been unrestrained.
David Wenham is Jerry, deliberately colourless, unable to function without his cue cards. It’s a non-singing role, but around him storm some thrilling powerhouse vocalists, including David Bedalla, Alison Jiear, Kate Miller-Hedike and Lawrence Clayton.
The sensational chorus are at first Jerry’s weird and wild studio audience.
Later they are angels, demons, blood-spattered nurses and, for one blissfully nasty routine, a tap-dancing line of hooded Ku Klux Klanners.
Photograph: David Wenham as Jerry Springer, and chorus. Photo: James Morgan.