Jersey Boys: Welcome to Falsettoland
The jukebox musical is growing up. I'm not saying we'll never again see Broadway shows that try to squeeze hit pop tunes into an unrelated story, but it seems there's a new, more dramatically mature method developing that combines the fun nostalgia of yesterday's radio classics with good musical theatre writing and song placement that doesn't stop the plot dead every time the characters start to sing.
Earlier this season we had Lennon, which, although critically and commercially unsuccessful, told Yoko Ono's version of the John Lennon story while using his songs to comment on his life experiences, keeping instances of actors singing "in character" to a minimum. Now we have Jersey Boys; an exceedingly fun and electrifyingly staged tale of the rise and fall of The Four Seasons, which smartly uses their hit songs as a sort of background soundtrack to the story of a group of blue-collar guys establishing a distinctive sound during the early years of rock and roll. They sing songs on stages, in clubs, and in recording studios, but, aside from a couple of missteps, never as part of a book scene. And yet director Des McAnuff, by being very stingy with applause breaks until the audience is ready to burst, and bookwriters Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice, by deftly weaving the dialogue in and out of the music, have found a method to use songs to fuel the story without overwhelming it. Fans of The Four Seasons may walk in excited to hear familiar favorites like "Sherry", "Big Girls Don't Cry", "Rag Doll" and "Walk Like a Man", but they should leave the theatre impressed with how plot-driven the entire production is without ever short-handing the music. The jukebox musical has found its Pal Joey; a bit flawed, but ambitious, gritty, clever and professional.
Since there are four sides to the story, each of the major players is given a quarter of the show to narrate in accordance to his own point of view. We begin with Tommy DeVito (a terrific Christian Hoff exuding extra helpings of goomba charisma), a punk kid from the neighborhood with big dreams. In between doing small favors for the local mob, Tommy frequently partakes in that popular 1950's practice of hanging out on street corners with his buddies and singing close four-part harmonies. When he discovers the shy kid who would soon become famous as Frankie Valli (a dazzling Broadway debut by John Lloyd Young), Tommy starts searching for the perfect combination of singers to showcase Frankie's soaring falsetto voice, not to mention trying to find a decent name for the group.
Tommy is introduced to Bronxite Bob Gaudio (a boyishly clean cut Daniel Reichard) by, would you believe, a young Joe Pesci, hilariously played by Michael Longoria as a sort of male cartoon version of Anybody's from West Side Story. At this point Gaudio is a has-been at age 19 who hasn't been heard of since writing the hit tune "Short Shorts" four years earlier, but he finds sudden inspiration in writing specifically for Valli. As Gaudio takes over the story, the boys have been regularly rejected by record producers because their appearance and sound don't quite mesh. "Come back when you're black", they're advised. But eventually they find success after signing a recording contract with Bob Crewe (a smarmy Peter Gregus), whose contribution as the lyricist for Reichard's music is never mentioned in the show, although he does get program credit.
It seems every group in the 60's had a rugged, silent member, and for The Four Seasons it was Nick Massi (J. Robert Spencer), who begins the second half of the story revealing what had previously gone unspoken. It seems the group had been financed though mob loans to Tommy and the sacrifices they make to pay up are what lead to their break-up, not to mention the break-up of personal relationships. When Frankie takes over the story he is on the verge of a successful solo career with Gaudio writing and working behind the scenes, but his family life is racing downhill.
Despite the fact that DeVito and Massi each made several trips through the revolving door known as The Rahway Correctional Facility, mostly for petty crimes, there's a blue-collar, working class sense of decency that permeates throughout Jersey Boys. "We weren't a social movement like the Beatles," Gaudio observes. "Our fans didn't put flowers in their hair and try to levitate the Pentagon. Maybe they should have. Our people were the guys who were shipped overseas, and their sweethearts. They were the factory workers, the truck drivers, the kids pumping gas, flipping burgers. The pretty girl with circles under her eyes behind the counter at the diner. They're the ones who really got us, who pushed us over the top." The boys from the neighborhood stress old-fashioned values like loyalty to your friends, being true to your family and never hitting on another guy's girl. When Gaudio and Valli agree to a business partnership, Bob suggests they hire lawyers to draw up a contact. Frankie says no to that and instead offers a handshake. "This is a New Jersey contract."
That working class atmosphere is reflected in Klara Zieglerova's industrial sets, which can resemble a construction sight, a turnpike or a jail, as needed. But Michael Clark's Roy Lichtenstein-inspired pop art projections, though adding nice splashes of color, seem out of place with the show's otherwise straightforward sincerity. Howell Binkley's show biz lights and Jess Goldstein's sharp costumes, along with Sergio Trujillo's cool, synchronized choreography, make the boys look great performing Ron Melrose's vocal arrangements.
If the show loses steam in Act II, because the pop score can't quite sustain the more serious dramatic developments, the searing momentum of Act I keeps the audience sufficiently pumped while waiting for high points such as Young's triumphant "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" (though I could do without the annoying milking of applause) and the eventual reunion tour and farewell speech of each member. But the low points are minimal in Jersey Boys, which often achieves levels of serious musical theatre artistry Broadway has never seen before from shows with scores made up of rock and roll hits from the past.
Photos by Joan Marcus: Top: J. Robert Spencer, John Lloyd Young, Daniel Reichard and Christian Hoff
Bottom: Daniel Reichard, John Lloyd Young, Christian Hoff and J. Robert Spencer