Next year's "sure- fire" Broadway hit still has a lot to prove.

"Jerry Springer, the Opera" (search) - critically acclaimed and much-hyped during its run at London's non-profit National Theatre - isn't faring nearly as well in the commercial West End (search).

Ticket sales so far have been disappointing and even one of its producers concedes, "We haven't broken out yet."

Last spring, London's "Jerry Springer, the Opera" was the talk of the theater world in London and New York.

Critics on both continents raved about it. It broke box-office records at the National. New York theater owners offered their best houses for the inevitable Broadway production, and producers, managers and press agents scrambled to get a piece of the action.

Then, on July 1, when tickets for a much-ballyhooed transfer to a West End commercial theater went on sale, this white hot show suddenly turned cold.

The gossip in London was that the dozen extra people hired to man the Telecharge phones spent the day doing crossword puzzles.

A rival producer gleefully spread the word that fewer than 100 tickets had been sold. He was exaggerating (which he is prone to do), but sales that first day were dismal - under $40,000, sources say - and remained flat for several weeks.

Sales have picked up in the last month, and the producers of the show - Allan McKeown and Jon Thoday - expect to rack up $1.5 million by Nov. 17, their opening night. Not exactly a blockbuster number, but McKeown and Thoday say they'll take it - especially since the West End is depressed these days, and many shows are struggling to keep their doors open.

Still, if "Jerry Springer" doesn't take off in the West End, then its prospects for New York - where it will cost nearly three time as much - are bleak.

The show itself, it must be said, is bold, outrageous and very funny, especially during the first act, which is made up of three sung-through episodes of the "Jerry Springer Show."

Super-size misfits from the trailer park perform solos, duets and menage-à-trios about their twisted sexual desires, often with considerable pathos, since, in the end, what they all really long for is true love.

Act II takes place in hell, where Springer, shot to death by one of his unstable guests, is forced to moderate a debate between Jesus and the Devil. The debate is static and too long, and saps a lot of the show's momentum.

McKeown and Thoday don't downplay the challenge of selling "Jerry Springer" eight performances a week, week in, week out, in a commercial theater (as opposed to 90 performances spread over five months).

"We haven't broken out yet on the West End," Thoday concedes, "but we are a grass-roots show. We started out small, then grew. We're still growing, but it's a long haul."

They believe ticket sales haven't exploded yet because "Jerry Springer" appeals to a much younger crowd than typically goes to the West End - and those hipsters buy tickets at the last minute.

To lure young audiences to the show, they are promoting "Jerry Springer" on the Internet and in youth-oriented magazines. They're offering 100 tickets at every performance for $40 (normal price: $80) for anyone under 25.

They are also advertising heavily in mainstream newspapers and other traditional West End outlets.

"What we're pursuing is essentially a dual strategy," says Thoday. "We're going after the traditional theater audience and an audience that has never even gone to a West End show.

Broadway, of course, is still very much in the cards - but it is an even more daunting challenge then the West End.

In New York, "Jerry Springer" will cost $14 million, with a weekly running cost of about $550,000, the producers say.

It will have to play a very large theater - probably the Majestic, once "The Phantom" closes - at a very high capacity for well over a year to just break even.

Those calculations give the producers pause, to be sure, but they believe New York will embrace "Jerry Springer."

"It is an American show," says McKeown, "and American audiences that have seen it at the National have really love it. I am very excited about its prospects on Broadway."