Greg Finney (left), Jocelyn Howard and Byron Rouse hit Jerry Springer’s high – and low – notes.
JERRY SPRINGER - THE OPERA by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee, directed by Richard Ouzounian (Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle). To January 31. $15-$25. 416-978-8849. See Continuing. Rating: NNN
It's difficult to elevate exploitation TV to the level of art, but Jerry Springer - The Opera nearly succeeds.
Receiving its Canadian premiere in a semi-professional production directed by Richard Ouzounian (better known as a local theatre critic), the West End hit about the nebbishy king of trashy confessions and confrontations entertains and satirizes. When it reaches for more, it stumbles.
The first half is set up like a version of one of Springer's shows, except his guests - a checklist of guilt-riddled fetishists, their enablers and put-upon spouses - sing their stories. Opera, as opposed to musical theatre, proves a good medium for these larger-than-life tales of betrayal and secrecy. The energetic singers aren't equally gifted, but at times a screeched or wobbly high note can add to a character's anguish.
Ouzounian makes good use of Hart House Theatre's wide stage, planting the chorus/studio audience on either side to watch and comment on the action. And he's come up with some clever design touches, like bathing a performer in a lurid yellow light when he's singing about golden showers.
Some parts of the opera seem unplayable. The idea of giving Springer (Byron Rouse) an "inner Valkyrie" voice of conscience isn't developed fully, and the overlong second act, which finds Springer presiding over a show set in hell, doesn't reverberate as it should, although there's an effective scene featuring past guests who emerge, zombie-like, from murky purgatory to comment on their brush with tabloid immortality.
Rouse nicely captures the real Springer's shoulder-shrugging sincerity in a role that tellingly is all spoken. Other standouts include Jocelyn Howard's troubled Peaches and Baby Jane and Benjamin Mehl's spunky, snappy Jesus. J.P. Bevilacqua is more memorable playing the first act's cloying warm-up guy than he is the second act's Satan, but that's a problem more with the chaotic script - and Ouzounian's inability to rein it in - than it is with the performer.