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‘Jerry Springer — The Opera’ review: A brilliant and bewildering Off-Broadway spectacle

The tightly-structured first act resembles an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show."

"Jerry Springer -- The Opera" is playing at The Pershing Square Signature Center through March 11. Photo Credit: The New Group / Monique Carboni

‘Jerry Springer – The Opera’ runs at the Pershing Square Signature Center through April 1. 480 W. 42nd St.,

Fifteen years ago, it was widely assumed that “Jerry Springer — The Opera” — the critically-praised, critical-minded, foul-mouthed, highly controversial musical inspired by Springer’s raunchy daytime TV talk show — would transfer from London to Broadway.

Somehow or other, the transfer never materialized. The resistance and protests by a number of religious groups against the show (especially after it was telecast by the BBC) probably played a role.

So notwithstanding a 2008 concert version at Carnegie Hall, the New Group’s sublime new Off-Broadway production marks the New York debut of this high art-meets-low art, brilliant and bewildering, absolutely freewheeling creation.

Whereas the original production was a big spectacle, the Off-Broadway staging (directed by musical comedy veteran John Rando) is so intimate that audience members (sitting in a three-quarter configuration) feel as if they are in the studio audience of “The Jerry Springer Show.” But more importantly, the cast approaches the material with sincerity, no matter the craziness.

The inventive score (by Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee) combines pure opera (arias, recitative, big vocal displays) with profane lyrics, pop and traditional musical theater.

The tightly-structured first act resembles an episode of “The Jerry Springer Show,” with a preshow warm-up exercise (led by a gleefully unhinged Will Swenson) followed by Springer (Terrence Mann, well-meaning and befuddled) interviewing a man cheating on his fiancee with another woman and a transvestite (the physically and vocally fierce Sean Patrick Doyle), an adult male who likes to dress up as an infant and a woman who is determined to be a pole dancer.

While this is all hilarious, it is equally disturbing and sobering, with spectators who crave violent and grotesque entertainment and guests who desperately desire a “Jerry Springer moment” of attention.

The second act takes on an absurdist, puzzling tone. Set in hell, Satan (Swenson) enlists Springer to host his long-delayed reunion with Jesus (Justin Keyes) — with surprise appearances from other famous biblical figures. Although original and interesting in concept, it is far less enjoyable and mostly falls flat.

That being said, fans of edgy musical theater, contemporary opera and experimental drama will not want to miss the rare opportunity to take in this daring, difficult, culturally conscious, one-of-a-kind work.

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