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'Chicago': His Kind of Tone, 'Chicago' Is

September 10, 2009 By:
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It's not the same old song and ... dunce.

Song: Sartorially splendid Jerry Springer spills onto the stage looking very much the dapper dynamo that he's proven to be, assaying the role of the roguish bilious Billy Flynn, in "Chicago," shortly after marking his Broadway debut in the role and now beginning a short run Sept. 15 at the Academy of Music in Center City.

Dunce: Well, maybe nothing new here after all for Springer, as the affable host of his self-named TV show continues to put the white trash out to the curbside, where chances are there's a folding chair amid the detritus that conforms to a dunce cap when it comes crashing down on a guest's head.

From broads and bums to braving Broadway: Lawyer, author, former mayor of Cincinnati, scandal-singed Jerry Springer knows how to razzle-dazzle 'em.

"It's all smoke and mirrors," says the 65-year-old British-born son of Holocaust survivors, mirroring the description of his stage alter-ego, whose clients Roxie and Velma are velcro-proof when it comes to the judicial system.

But then, isn't Springer Mr. Teflon himself? Smooth and silky-savvy, stuck in the role as the outsider, as his scream-show guests stick it to each other in segments that ponder, "Why Did Mom Marry My Uncle When Her First Husband, My Sister, Was Still Alive?"

Soft-shoe softie that Springer; those shoes don't stick to the stage either, as they floated instead in air in his spin as "Dancing With the Stars" surrogate for schlumps everywhere, dazzling as the devoted dad who danced into the hearts of millions for the best of all reasons: "I just wanted to learn how to waltz for my daughter's wedding."

Now he steps into the patent-leather lethal weapons made famous in the movie of "Chicago" by Richard Gere and the Broadway original by the late Jerry Orbach.

It's the law and disorder he brings to the stage as the viperous victim-shifting attorney.

"Oh, he's a better dancer than me," says Springer of the slick fast-on-his feet Billy. "And another way I'm different from him: He's cool."

Oh, chill, Jerry. How much cooler can you get than being a granddad of a 1-year-old ("I kvell every day," and he pats his heart) who can tell friends of the future that zayda was a country Western singer?

"Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be ... Cowed by Life"? "I've been very lucky," concedes Springer.

Luck be a lady tonight -- sorry, guys and dolls, if ever there were a Damon Runyunesque rake to run away with a show, it's Billy Flynn, the creation of composers John Kander and Fred Ebb with a tip of the Broadway bowler to dance man Bob Fosse, the musical three amigos who first staged the show in a pre-Broadway run more than 30 years ago in Philadelphia.

No wonder the Liberty Bell has that crack in it; it was Flynn always looking for a loophole.

"I get the role of Billy," muses Springer, at a backstage banter-burnished meeting in Philly. "He's a flamboyant attorney with a larger-than-life persona. I get it."

He got a great reception, too, in London, debuting in the role prior to his big Broadway number just weeks ago. And now, Philadelphia ... a natural that would make Roy Hobbs hate him?

Springer smiles. "I can't sing, and I can't dance."

Loves What He Does

But he sure can make magic.

Author of the autobiographical Ringmaster, Springer masterminds a ring of fire that may or may not exist. Presto -- persona! "Here I am making a career out of what I do, without any talent to do it," says the much-missed former host of "America's Got Talent," about to host a Las Vegas version of the show at Planet Hollywood.

One thing he doesn't have is the performing jones for Broadway: "Oh, I love Broadway, I've been to hundreds of shows. But never did I see one and say, 'One day, that will be me up there.' "

"Up there" is here now, even if his stature as a dancer on TV took a hit from those betting against him.

"The odds in Vegas that I'd be the winner of 'Dancing With the Stars' were 2,000-1. That really hurt," he says with a forlorn long face about the long odds.

After all, "the odds of being killed by falling in the shower are 1,500-1."

Yet Springer was showered with praise as each week he passed the terpsichorean litmus test with voters. But, at his age, senior moments mean not memory loss, but unforgettable and unforgiving aches and pains, and "after a while, each week I'd plead, 'Please vote me off.' "

The paean meant pain: "My hair was hurting!"

The confidence to go on and on -- if not the energy -- was rooted in an upbringing by parents who knew from not giving in.

"I was unconditionally loved," says Springer of his "doting parents," who moved with him to the United States 60 years ago and moved him emotionally with their gentle admonitions to "always do your best."

Does that include an incendiary inane TV show? "If my parents had been alive today, I would not have done this talk show. My mother was always proper," and this would have mortified her.

And his dad? "He would have laughed about it."

What Springer never laughed off was their off-kilter existence living with a Holocaust legacy. "My fundamental point of existence of liberalism is derived from their Holocaust experience. I learned early to judge people by what they do."

He was adjudged early on a winner with a need for social justice, "which I attribute to my upbringing" as a son of survivors.

His life was one of civil wars -- battling boldly on the front lines for rights not between the grays and blues, but the blacks and whites, becoming a fervent voice on behalf of the disenfranchised African-American community.

"In the '50s and '60s, it was so clearly [a war] of good versus evil. And I am sure that my experiences [as a son] of survivors put me on the right side of that battle," he explains.

That was on the left -- one which led him to work on the Bobby Kennedy presidential campaign. Springer's own campaign for the Ohio gubernatorial race was derailed by his self-admitted dalliance with a prostitute, for which he paid a significant price.

High notes, low notes: How operatic a world is Springer's? Enough so to form the basis of the much-staged "Jerry Springer -- the Opera," filled not with Sopranos-style substance, but with the base actions of his TV show as the fulcrum.

But when all is said and done -- and danced -- it all boils down to one thing, doesn't it Jerry? Cue the light man; conductor, if you please ...

"Yes," he attests, appreciative of the Billy Flynn-flam line of razzle-dazzle mazel: "All I care about is love."

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