The cast has now substantially (but not entirely) changed since it premiered at the National 15 months ago. Director Stewart Lee and casting director Stephen Crockett (for David Grindrod Associates) faced a potentially serious problem when it came to re-casting this production. How do you improve on perfection? The simple answer is you can’t – but you can equal it.
I’m much relieved to report that this company is every bit the equal of their predecessors. That’s partly a testament to the wealth of idiosyncratic talent that has been miraculously found to assume the mantle of the original cast whose accomplishments included seeing its entire chorus winning an Olivier for Best Performance in a Supporting Role in a Musical.
But it also demonstrates how strongly characterised (both musically in Richard Thomas’ score and the book and lyrics of Thomas and Lee) Jerry is. Though the characters may have seemed tailor-made to the original company or vice versa, the newcomers now have ready-made skins to assume – and quickly get under yours all over again.
Former Starsky and Hutch star David Soul steps into the title role with suavely polished ease. He may not be quite the striking Springer look-a-like that Michael Brandon was - and Soul’s singing abilities (with two number one singles to his name) are actually irrelevant since he’s the only cast member not to sing – but he provides the still, sure focus of the evening as required, while everything erupts around him.
Hadrian Delacey, an original chorus member, steps up to the even more difficult task of replacing David Bedella’s Olivier Award-winning Warm Up Man and Satan. Where Bedella was insinuating and even sexy, Delacey offers a portrait that is more smarmy and repellent, but it’s an equally valid interpretation.
Others follow their predecessors more closely, but all make an equally strong impression, from the hilarious performances of Leon Craig’s nappy-wearing (and nappy-filling) Montel and Jesus, Christopher Key’s redneck Chucky and Adam, and Ryan Molloy’s flamboyant chick-with-a-dick Tremont, to the finely vocalised contributions of Carrie Ellis as Peaches and Baby Jane, Annabelle Williams as the touchingly vulnerable Andrea, and Claire Platt’s triple triumph as Zandra, Irene and Mary.
Only three original principals remain, but each is as indelible as before: Alison Jiear’s Shawntell and Benjamin Lake’s Dwight bring the biggest voices as well as waistlines to the show, and Guy Porritt’s Steve, Head of Security, is a thuggish scene-stealer throughout.
- Mark Shenton
NOTE: The following review dates from November 2003 and this production’s original West End opening.
Rushing into the West End like a breath of fresh, blazing talent and mellifluous melody, Jerry Springer - The Opera also turns the air blue with its rank, odorous words as no show has ever done there. The West End has never seen its like before, and may never be the same again. Ditto the world of musical theatre that it stands on its head. This is, in every way, a groundbreaking show.
Seeing it in the modern expanses of the National - where this past spring it ushered in Nicholas Hytner's directorship as a brilliant statement of new intent that broke decisively from Trevor Nunn's previous regime of cosy musical revivals - it seemed radical and experimental. It's even more exciting to find it now in the staid confines of the West End, hurling down a challenge to the dreaded pop tribute shows and classical revivals to prove that a new (and British written, moreover) show can invigorate, challenge and shock.
It's rare to see a show of this scale, ambition or daring in the West End, or a cast so outright thrilling. An extraordinary ensemble of rich, resonant voices and surprising, alternately repellent and touching personalities animate the stage.
While Michael Brandon stands out for the pin-point accuracy of his Springer impersonation (made all the clearer on press night when the real Jerry stood side-by-side with him at the curtain call), there's also dazzling work from David Bedella as his warm-up man and subsequently Satanic persecutor; Alison Jiear as a pole-dancing fantasist; Benjamin Lake as a triple-timing love rat and subsequently God; Lore Lixenberg as the extraordinarily voiced Peaches and Baby Jane; and Valda Aviks in a variety of scene-stealing cameos, amongst others too numerous to name individually.
NOTE: The following review dates from April 2003 and this production's original run at the National Theatre.
Starting with the title, Jerry Springer - The Opera sounds improbable, but you better believe it: this is the bravest, most brilliant, completely original, utterly audacious and outright thrilling new piece of original music theatre London has produced since Evita and Cats.
It may be difficult to remember those shows as revolutionary, but revolutionary (and evolutionary) they were, stretching form (the sung-through pop opera and dance-based musical respectively) to accommodate their content. Likewise, Jerry Springer uses a highbrow form - opera - to satirise (but not patronise) the uniquely lowbrow cultural phenomenon of the confessional television chat show.
"We eat, we excrete, and we watch TV/ And you are there for us Jerry", goes one of the few printable refrains in a show that has the ripest, most profane language of this or any other year, summing up the trailer trash aspirations of its participants who claim validation for their lives and problems by airing them in the public arena of television.
As the first act diligently, deliciously and dazzlingly recreates a typical Springer episode, from the security staring us down as we take our seats in the NT Lyttelton to the warm-up man stoking up the studio's passions, the onstage audience shouts "Bring on the losers!" and here comes Jerry (Michael Brandon), with his trademark air of baffled concern, happily occupying the moral low versus high ground, as he compels three couples to reveal guilty secrets to our appalled delight.
There's Dwight (Benjamin Lake) admitting to his fiancée Peaches (Lore Lixenberg) that he's been seeing someone else - her best friend Zandra (Valda Aviks), a sometime crack and dope addict. But that's not all - he's also been seeing Tremont, a "chick with a dick" (Andrew Bevis, making a chameleon-like switch from playing Romeo in last year's worst musical Romeo and Juliet to now starring in what is certain to be this year's best).
Then there's Montel (Wills Morgan), telling his girlfriend Andrea (Sally Bourne), "I want to be your baby, baby" and meaning it literally. Finally, there's Shawntel, a larger-than-life blonde with a redneck, abusive husband (Marcus Cunningham) who, in the evening's most haunting and stunningly sung number, finds Alison Jiear singing "I just wanna dance" as she fulfils her dream of becoming a pole-dancer.
Richard Thomas' frequently gorgeous musical score has enough invention and melody compressed into this act to sustain an entire show, but the book that he and Stewart Lee (who also directs) have written has an ambition, sweep and daring that, in the second act, propels Springer to hell. Here a seductive Satan (David Bedella) makes him preside over a version of the show that has Jesus called to account by Adam and Eve, his mother Mary, and finally sees God himself descend from heaven to sing, "It ain't easy being me".
Jerry Springer - The Opera, if you hadn't guessed it yet, is an equal opportunities offender, and like the show it satirises, turns the National's audience into a braying mob before the end. It's staged and performed with breathtaking assurance, and has the makings of an instant cult. A legend has not only been celebrated, but a theatrical one born.