Jerry Springer: The Opera, Cambridge Theatre, London

Get your arias out of here

The near-universal praise for Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee's show when it opened at the National last April may have built up expectations to an unreasonable height. But I think that, even without them, I would have been left as cold as I was when the interval lights came on. Where was the devastating satire? I was numb from being beaten over the head with the same joke.

That joke, of course, is setting the filthy and vicious language of the geeks and freaks on Jerry Springer's TV confession show to high-flown music. With straight faces and soaring voices, the audience and guests sing of sexual peculiarities that range from risible to repulsive - one man has cheated on his fiancée with her best friend and a transvestite; another soulfully praises defecation as a means of self-determination, though he doesn't put it quite that way.

We're invited to laugh at the stupidity and hypocrisy of the congregants in the great revivalist church of television, at the way they assuage their frustration and self-loathing by excoriating those just a bit lower on the social ladder. Yet is it any less hypocritical of the theatre patrons to be laughing at the lowlife television-show audience? "Irony" seems too glib a defence.

The music of Jerry Springer may evoke Wagner and Bach, but at least as strong an influence is exerted by American musicals of the Fifties. Imagine one of the anguished, yearning singers with a Broadway rather than a Covent Garden voice, and you can recognise a tune hardly different from one in The Sound of Music or West Side Story. Guying their wholesomeness at this point is flogging a dead horse - one of the few erotic perversities not explored here.

In the second half, the show becomes more daring and far more interesting. It's not the sex that will give this show problems in America but the characterisations of God as a lonely guy, Jesus as a gay black man, and Mary as a Jewish mother furious at a son who has the crazy idea of redeeming mankind rather than looking after her in her old age. On a fire-bombed set, Jerry, now in hell, must preside over a chat show on which Satan airs his grievance with the higher powers.

The music becomes more sophisticated, too, as we are asked whether Jerry provokes madness or simply holds a mirror up to nature. "That's right!" he shouts, Homer Simpson-like. "I do the mirror thing!" But neither the arguments nor the melodies are developed much beyond what is necessary for a flashy effect, and the ending, on a rare haunting line, grabs at an emotion that has not been earned.

I have no reservations, however, about the fabulous cast. Michael Brandon's Jerry, the one non-singing part, provides a comic counterpoint to the whole circus with his absurd unflappability on camera and his pointed brutality off it. The singers have gorgeous voices, enunciate the scabrous lyrics only too well and throw themselves into their roles with ferocious vivacity, especially David Bedella, whose Satan is a kind of surly Latin gigolo with a hint of Cab Calloway.

Booking to 27 March (020-7494 5080)

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