Theater review: ‘Jerry Springer the Opera’ is a guilty pleasure

For those who respond to the rallying cry: “Stay weird. Stay different,” the Olivier award-winning British musical “Jerry Springer the Opera” is an artistic walk on the wild side.

The title alone conjures up sensational drama, shocking characters and crude, crass behavior, and the show is all that. This latest risk-taking production from New Line Theatre pushes the envelope and blurs the lines, just like the tabloid format that has made host Jerry Springer an American institution.

The incendiary TV show has been running since 1991, attracting psycho magnets and trashy hot messes. We tune in for the train wrecks. Sure we can gloat, mock, and deride the pitiful and deeply disturbed creatures on display, but what does that say about us? Aren’t we all wanting to love and be loved, live an authentic life, and try to live a better life?

Composers Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, who also wrote the book, attempt to make sense of it all as they examine the human circus in a scandalous talk show setting the first act, then veer off the reservation in the second and third acts, in a very surreal foray into Purgatory and mad descent into Hell. They stage confrontations in Hell between Satan and God, Jesus, Archangels Gabriel and Michael. After a strong, promising first act introducing the players, the gear-shifting takes some adjustment, and is a bit muddled until Jerry (perfectly cast Keith Thompson) realizes his role in the grand guignol.

This modern work is as cheeky as John Waters’ film canon, and as tawdry as the sleaziest current reality shows. Copiously laced with profanity, the show gleefully shocks and offends. If you are a Judgy McJudgerson, stay away. If you are adventurous, can withstand swear words, and appreciate the fearlessness of the New Line regulars, it can be an interesting night of theater.

Besides featuring oversized melodramatic personalities, the show is surprisingly vocally demanding, as opera is, and some classically trained singers step up their game. You may have seen Matt Pentecost, Anna Skidis, Luke Steingruby, Taylor Pietz, East St. Louis’ Marshall Jennings, and Kimi Short in New Line productions before, but they display their strong vocal abilities in new ways.

Perhaps you don’t expect Puccini, but in a sense, it is. Think about it: “La Boheme” — poor folk; “Madame Butterfly” — unrequited love, betrayal; and “Tosca” — violence, murder, suicide.

Engaged but cheating Dwight (always strong Zachary Allen Farmer) is not just fooling around with his fiance Peaches’ best friend Zandra (Lindsey Jones) but a transsexual Tremont (a fierce Luke Steingruby, going big and showing remarkable range). Peaches (luminous Taylor Pietz) can’t accept, and conflicts erupt on stage, to be simmered down by security Steve Wilkos (Matt Hill, impressive in his debut).

If you don’t recall the “Adult Baby” guest, a controversial scene brings it all back. Marshall Jennings, as we have never seen him before, wants to wear diapers and defecate, while he is in a relationship with Andrea (golden-voiced Christina Rios), who must flee, but not before she sweetly sings, “I Wanna Sing Something Beautiful.”

Shawntel (an exceptional Anna Skidis, Collinsville native), wants to be an exotic dancer — as displayed in the yearning, aching “I Just Wanna Dance” — but her redneck husband Chuck (always in-the-moment Ryan Foizey) forbids it. The JerryCam exposes Chuck’s fondness for strip clubs and membership in the KKK. So, we witness tap-dancing Ku Klux Klan members. (You are warned).

After more chaotic drama, the ensemble players are now ghostly souls or religious deities. Energetic Matt Pentecost, previously the unctuous warm-up guy Jonathan Weiruss, plays the arrogant fireball Satan, who will tussle with God (Farmer) and Jesus (Jennings). Skidis and Farmer show up as a bickering Adam and Eve.

Thompson shades Springer with a surprising naivete, and an acceptance of human foibles. He is no buffoon, and shrugs off most of the craziness.

The chorus is the fired-up studio audience — Rey Arceno, Joel Hackbarth, Ann Heir, Sarah Porter, Tyler Cheatem, Michelle Sauer, Christopher Strawhun and Kimi Short, who also powerfully sings Jerry’s “Inner Valkyrie.”

Rob Lippert of O’Fallon designed the set, and depicted an interesting Hell, with fires burning. His dynamic lighting design really helped set the mood and tone,

Final Thought: Co-directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy swiftly moved the piece, maintaining the high jinks spirit and allowing the characters to have their moments of infamy. In turn, the tight cast immersed themselves in this gaudy, bold show. They all have a blast, and want us to be entertained by the shenanigans. They follow Jerry’s advice: “Take care of each other.”