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Life delights in life

Battersea Arts Centre
02/05/2002 -  and 6-9, 12-16, 19-23 February 2002
Richard Thomas: Jerry Springer: the opera
Tom Pearce (Kylie/Tremont), Lore Lixenberg (Charlene/Baby Jane), Sam Newman (Chucky/Sam/Adam), Adey Grummet (Chantel/Eve), Wills Morgan (Dwight/Montel/Jesus), Valda Aviks (Andrea/Zandra/Irene), Ian Shaw (Jonathan/Devil), Rick Bland (Jerry Springer)

Martin Lowe (music director/keyboards)

Jerry Springer: the opera is exactly what the title says, with music by Richard Thomas and libretto by Thomas and Stewart Lee, both old hands in television comedy. It is still officially work in progress: the performance was preceded by a request to talk to the Thomas and Lee in the bar afterwards to make suggestions. While some might say that it's a bit of a chiz to be asked to write the opera as well as shelling out for a ticket, that's the way Jerry Springer has developed so far, and the result is remarkable.

It should be said that, although it has been reviewed mainly by theatre critics, Jerry Springer is unquestionably an opera. Philip Roth in I married a communist refers to the arias of the self-obsessed, and Thomas has found exactly the right point on the knife-edge between passion and hysteria. His earlier work Tourette's Divas presented (with sympathy and entertainingly) the overlap between clinical glossolalia and operatic bravura; Jerry Springer provides the narrative and cultural context for the moments of extreme experience, and the stories are a hairsbreadth from those of grand verismo, where passion has its double sense of desire and pain to the full.

The first act of the opera is a musical version of the television show, complete with profanity: three guests in sequence reveal their guilty secrets to their nearest and dearest while the audience roars. Kylie turns out to be a chick with a dick, to Sam's redneck disgust. Dwight, engaged to Charlene, is seeing not only her best friend Zandra but also Tremont. Montel, engaged to Andrea, has infantile coprophile tendencies that he indulges with Baby Jane. And Chantel wants passionately to be a pole dancer. They bicker in recitative, but express their inner feelings in often exquisite short arias. The audience chants "Jer-ry", but at the start and end of the act it takes the form of a great Bach chorus (Herr, mein Herrscher from the start of the St John Passion, perhaps), and the music is often on an engaging continuum between Bach, gospel and blues, Gershwin and Sondheim. Although the audience and guests are classic underclass types, there is compassion as well as humour in they way Thomas and Lee treat them, and the thought of Jesus dining with sinners isn't far off.

The second act, which has been completed since the performances in August and September last year and could do with a bit of tightening up, takes up the religious theme (reiterated in some surreal commercials) and sends Jerry -- accidentally shot by Montel, who is aiming at the Klan pals of Chucky, Chantel's husband, don't ask -- to hell, where his irritating warm-up guy Jonathan turns out to be in charge. Jerry has to host a show with an audience of imps where the Devil and Jesus talk through their long-running grudge (in competing Handelian roulades) and Adam and Eve rail at the cruelty of God's grand plan. As things fall apart, Jerry realises that the fate of the universe depends on him saying something himself, and after a few false starts he comes up, rather movingly, with Blake's Marriage of Heaven and Hell: "Everything that lives is holy; life delights in life".

There's a lot of filthy language, as well adult situations in the literal sense. But, though the chorus-audience is cruel and voyeuristic, Jerry Springer: the opera is not in itself cruel, but precisely a survey of life in all its pain and odd delight, intensified by music. Montel the diaper man and Baby Jane both have catchy tunes to express their glee, while Chantel's aria about pole dancing, superbly sung by Adey Grummet, is a show-stopper. The feud between the Devil and Jesus is both a playground squabble and a heroic vocal duel. And it is all very funny indeed.

The cast, most of them returning to their roles, consists mainly of young opera singers. Grummet has a magnificent spinto-ish soprano voice that sounded huge in the small but echoing main house at BAC, and intense commitment that was perfect for the physically obsessed Chantel. Lore Lixenberg as Andrea and Baby Jane sounded rather harsh, perhaps again an effect of the house, and was splendidly deranged and extremely spooky as the dead, not quite angelic, Baby Jane in the second act. Valda Aviks, new to the cast, provided a fine assortment of flakes -- druggy, prurient frump and ghastly mother. Sam Newman was seriously scary as the two rednecks, and about the same as Adam (in western boots). Tom Pearce was a little understated, though almost beautiful, as Kylie and definitely not camp enough as Tremont. His roles were previously sung by counter-tenor Andrew Emerson, but Pearce is more of an haut contre with moments of good falsetto, which is easier on the audience's eardrums and his vocal chords, but perhaps not transgressive enough. Wills Morgan was gleeful throughout as two-timing Dwight, Montel in diapers and Jesus. Ian Shaw, whose background is in jazz, was entertainingly over the top as the warm-up guy and the Devil. His singing was noticeably uneven, obviously depending on a mike that didn't always deliver, in contrast to the rock solid technique of the rest of the cast.

Rick Bland, of the Reduced Shakespeare Company, was recognisably Jerry Springer.

H.E. Elsom



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