Review: ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’ is as deplorable, and fun, as you’d expect

Review: ‘Jerry Springer: The Opera’ is as deplorable, and fun, as you’d expect

If you’re looking for something disturbing to watch on YouTube late at night (or anytime, really), pull up some old episodes of the vile “Jerry Springer Show.”

They feature a few guilty chuckles, many from the grumpy yet affable host who interjects his awkward perspective into the proceedings constantly. Then there are feather-fisted members of the security team that tries to break up the angry subjects and their physical battles, a motley crew of bad behavior.

Sadly, the security staff has all the effectiveness of a mouse guarding the door at a nightclub, but hey, anything that gets the purveyors of this brand of trash television to chant the host’s name is a supposed win.

All of which raises a question that probably no one in their right mind would even stumble upon: How in the world does “The Jerry Springer Show” connect to the primal nature of opera?

The answer is “Jerry Springer: the Opera,” a show born in London’s West End 20 years ago and now playing at San Jose Playhouse. It is not for the faint of heart. While the television show functioned highly as a prude-free zone, the production led by the talented cast is solid, even though creators Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s concoction isn’t exactly high culture.

The premise is predictable, based on the infamous host whose name blares inside the play’s title. The guests have lots of range — there are serial cheaters, all types of scuzzy folks and even a man who likes to dress as a baby and act out everything, down to the boom boom in his diaper. Oh, and there are also appearances from Angel Gabriel, Jesus and Satan, because hey, why would they miss out on this nonsense?

Any great opera has a brutal death, and Springer’s offing at the hands of someone who was probably actually gunning for a Klan member in Act 1’s finale is brutal indeed. That ending is complete with tap dancing leading to the tighter Act 2, aided by yet another Steve Wilkos (Fred Isozaki) security fail. As a result, Jerry’s infamous final thoughts have transitioned to his new address in Hell.

One of the challenges of the show is finding the line between gratuitous shlock and something genuinely edgy, which is blurred too often. Irreverent humor is the hallmark of many a great production, but here, that irreverence does not have nearly enough sharp satire for it to effectively sustain over the course of the show’s two hours.

That said, many moments are delightfully funny, with terrific production values — some of the best the Playhouse has produced in recent memory. The trio of creatives who make up the bulk of the Playhouse’s productions in downtown San Jose take turns showcasing the mastery of the spectacle.

That spectacle is led with Scott Evan Guggenheim’s deft direction of his talented cast, with Ric Iverson’s turn as Springer achieving a nice balance of the television host’s befuddlement and sketchy inquiry of his oddball guests. Vocal director Stephen Guggenheim consistently receives a pleasing sound from the 11-member cast that serves up tight harmonies and solos. And Shannon Guggenheim’s choreography parallels the freneticism of the original source material, the play mostly moving at breakneck speed. In addition, Shannon Guggenheim’s stellar video designs along with Jon Gourdine’s terrific set creates an environment where television hell (literally) is about to be unleashed.

What works well is the constant tension housed under the studio roof, with the basest and most offensive humor imaginable paired with the pleasing sounds of opera. Many Playhouse regulars make appearances in the production. Nina Edwards is a stellar Mary, with a buttery smooth register making fantastic runs constantly. Beautifully-presenced B Noel Thomas understands deeply the nature of tongue-in-cheek within her multiple roles. Krista Wigle showcases both a solid voice and impeccable comic timing, and Joseph Meyers is especially funny throughout, namely as the narrative comes to a close with his donning a skin-tight Elvis costume.

“Jerry Springer: the Opera” is one wild ride that isn’t going to be for everyone. I can’t really say it was even for me, and I love irreverence. But if it wasn’t wild, it wouldn’t be Jerry Springer. Or opera. After all, people who want their mamas to spank them while dancing on poles are still just, well, people.

David John Chávez is chair of the American Theatre Critics Association and a two-time juror for the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (‘22-‘23); @davidjchavez.


Created by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, presented by San Jose Playhouse

Through: March 17

Where: 3Below Theaters, 288 S. Second St., San Jose

Running time: Two hours with an intermission

Tickets: $45-$65;