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Heaven, Hell and Harvey Keitel

The cast and creators of "Jerry Springer: The Opera" take a journey with trash-TV host through an underworld of his own making.

Reviewer’s note: This headline has probably been used more than once before, but it seems particularly apt for this review.

The presentation of “Jerry Springer: The Opera” at Carnegie Hall on its second of two nights January 30 unfolded as an odd mix of opera, musical comedy and stage play that only truly took off in its second half. Featuring Harvey Keitel in the title role, speaking his lines between sung lines and choruses from the rest of the cast, the piece spent its entire first half re-creating its take on Springer’s show.

For all its renown, Carnegie Hall was far from the ideal venue for this presentation, as several operatically sung punch lines got utterly lost, partly because of bad acoustics, and partly because they were sung as opera rather than in musical theater style. And while opera does play up the histrionics of the fights between Springer’s guests, the musical theater moments in the show were more suited to communicating its comedy.

The first half of “Jerry Springer: The Opera” presents four different sets of guests with Keitel as ringmaster, and straightforward songs sung by the guests, like “Talk to the Hand,” “Diaper Man” and “Poledancer,” reap laughs. But between these, Keitel’s presence, through no fault of his own, and maybe only because he’s the only one not singing, comes across awkward.

But in the second act, everything coalesces, after Keitel/Springer is shot to end the first act, and embarks on a tour of purgatory, where he must mediate between Satan, Jesus and God, and their age-old conflicts, as though they were the typical trashy guests on his show. And there’s no one better than Scorsese-Catholic-guilt-portrayal veteran Keitel to handle this material and deliver it with conviction.

This part of “Jerry Springer: The Opera” matches the heights of combining literate and hilarious material just as “South Park” and “Monty Python” episodes have. Take just one couplet sung by God (Luke Grooms), “Thousands of moaning voices/Blaming me for all their wrong choices.” Even the latter part of the first half, with its chorus of singing and dancing Klansmen, makes a similar mark, with audacity reminiscent of Mel Brooks’ “Springtime For Hitler.”

The writers behind “Jerry Springer: The Opera,” Stewart Lee and Richard Thomas are definitely onto something with their idea of making Jerry Springer the focal point of their Dante’s “Inferno,” played for laughs scenario. At points they even really nail (pardon the crucifixion reference, groan…) the concept. But perhaps if this were “Jerry Springer: The Rock Opera,” it could really take off as a must-see show for a long Broadway run.




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