BWW Review: John Lloyd Young Scales The Musical Heights With JUKEBOX HERO at 54 Below
There is a genre of musical theater play that has been named the Jukebox Musical. Some consider this type of play with a fair amount of derision, while others embrace the artform; those who do not favor the Jukebox Musical are always sure to coat the words with disdain upon utterance. Perhaps that is why John Lloyd Young calls Jersey Boys a Catalog Musical. It cannot be denied that Catalog Musical is a more elegant way of referring to a piece of theater built around a score that was not originally written for the stage, and it is not an inaccurate appelation. These plays are built around the catalog of music created by a certain musical artist. Whether using the phrase Jukebox Musical or Catalog Musical, there is no disputing the fact that the play Jersey Boys broke free of the derisive attitudes about the category, raised the bar for the plays that would follow, and made John Lloyd Young a star in 2005. The year is now 2020 and John Lloyd Young is still a star, and though his long overdue return to Broadway is still a breathless anticipation, as long as there are clubs, concert halls, and cabarets the fans of the much awarded Young will have a place to shower him with the adulation he has earned and continues to, with every performance. Make no mistake about it: when you pay to see a John Lloyd Young show, you get your money's worth.
John Lloyd Young's show, currently playing Feinstein's/54 Below, is the show he has been doing in recent years, JUKEBOX HERO, though his discussions with the audience disclose, frankly, that the show is in a continually evolutionary state, with new things happening all the time. For instance, he and his guest for the week, Renee Marino, sit together for a large chunk of the show, reminiscing and sharing stories, and then taking questions from the audience about the making of the film Jersey Boys -- Young mentions more than once that the chat is spontaneous and will be completely different in subsequent performances. There are also different songs by his musical director/accompanist, the spectacular Tommy Faragher, from which Young will choose during each show. It is clear that JLY wishes to make each show a unique and personal experience for the crowd. Young not only knows his fans, he knows the value that they bring to his artistry and his career, as well as the value of treating them with dignity, respect and affection. On more than one occasion, Mr. Young leaves the stage and wanders through the house, shaking hands, hugging, and bestowing kisses on thrilled and exhilarated patrons of the arts and of his art. Perhaps playing Frankie Vali all those years rubbed off on him because this is the best version of Las Vegas to be found in Manhattan right now, harkening back to the days of Wayne Newton, Dean Martin, and Bobby Rydell. Young sees how adored he is and when he communicates with the audience, whether speaking to them from the stage, singing to them while holding their hands, or sitting on their laps, he makes sure that they know he sees them. His gaze into your eyes is hypnotic and his firm handshake inspires confidence and a feeling of friendship.
Simply put: while watching John Lloyd Young do his show, it is impossible to dislike him.
Mr. Young works without a script, this much is clear. Nobody working from a script could possibly speak at such length about matters that can be covered more succinctly and expediently, allowing for more time spent singing. It can be frustrating at times because there is an element of repetition to his rhetoric, and even though he is beyond charming, extremely frank in his sharing, and naturally rather funny, when one is in a room with John Lloyd Young, the dominating thought going through the brain is "WHEN is he going to sing again?!" He has fun stories and is an engaging raconteur, most enjoyable to listen to, until that inevitable moment when the words scroll through your head like a news monitor: "WHY isn't he singing?!" The prattle eats a lot of clock, and when you're sitting in a room with one of the freakiest, most unbelievable, one of a kind voices you can hear sing, extemporaneous chit chat can become a hindrance to happiness, rather than a pleasurable promise that the next song is moments away. Fortunately for Mr. Young, the fans love him and will suffer the gabble until the next notes of music indicate the onslaught of glorious, gorgeous, unequaled singing. Perhaps Mr. Young could sit down and write out what he would like to say in his show, thus giving him a structure and a guideline to follow that will assist in keeping him on point. There is a chance the show might lose a tiny bit of spontaneity, but Young does, after all, have a Tony Award - he can make up for the loss. It is conceivable that the first portions of dialogue that could be cut from his show might be anything that does not pertain to the entertainment of the audience. Mr. Young does spend rather a lot of time discussing the accomplishments of Mr.Faragher, Ms. Moreno, and his own good self - all facts easily found on Google. There is talk of places he has played, places he will play, places the audience of the moment doesn't care about. They care about the place they are: sitting in a club waiting for the next time John Lloyd Young will sing. There is a laundry list of social media links for himself and his co-stars, all information that can be found online. It is during these moments when the show begins to feel like a commercial or an episode of The Home Shopping Network. The audience didn't come to have all that information thrown at them in a time, place or manner when they have no writing implement with which to take down the information, and brains slightly addled by alcohol, carbs, sugar and a healthy dose of crushing on John Lloyd Young -- to wit, too addled to remember five or six different social media handles. Fortunately for John Lloyd Young, the crowd adores him and will sit through anything if he will just do two things: smile that mischievous smile and raise that spectacular voice.
Oh, the voice, the voice, the voice.
Anyone who saw Jersey Boys knows the miracle that is John Lloyd Young's voice. It's enough to make a person wonder if he hasn't made some kind of Faustian deal to be blessed with a voice that, at 44, shows no signs of diminishment, no possible signs at all. What audience members restricted to the Jersey Boys experience miss by not seeing JLY in person as himself is the remarkable versatility of the voice. Yes, when Young sings the songs from Jersey Boys (the crowds went WILD), he can do the Vali falsetto; but when he sings "I Have Dreamed" or "The Breakup Song" his voice takes on richer, fuller tones that showcase the freakish range that he possesses. The man can sing anything and everything, and he can adapt his voice so that he sounds like a 60's rock singer, an 80's pop singer, a Broadway bari-tenor, or a Las Vegas divo. The thrill is an incomparable experience for any person who appreciates great music and the musically impossible brought to life as though by a prestidigitator. It simply has to be seen and heard, live, to be believed, especially the breathtakingly stunning "Unchained Melody" which actually bested all of the Jersey Boys songs, even "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" -- and that is saying a lot.
A lot can also be said about the people sharing the stage with JLY because they are so wonderful that they almost stole the show away from him. Ok, honestly, nobody could do that because John Lloyd Young; but they certainly prove that Mr. Young isn't afraid to be onstage with overwhelming talents like Mr. Faragher and Ms. Marino. As a musical director, Faragher is the right man for Young because it is as though they can read each others' minds musically, and the harmonies and backup vocals make out of two men an entire band. And Faragher's solos are out of freakin' sight. Ms. Marino is the perfect yin to Mr. Young's yang, with a sense of playful humor with both the audience and Young that recalls their scenes together in the film Jersey Boys. The love these two artists share with their leading man shows in their interactions with him, and the love Young has for talented friends is obvious because he is surrounding himself with the best.
JUKEBOX HERO actually plays less like a cabaret or a concert and more like a 90 minute TV special, given the casual air with which JLY talks to the people around him, from Faragher to the audience, and especially when he sits down with Marino, interview style, to chat it up a bit. It's a good TV special made better by the fact that you're hearing that voice live, to say nothing of the excitement on full display from shrieking fans thrilled to be iPhone filming JLY as he sings directly to them while holding their hand, other fans singing along all the while. Or the women dancing at the bar flipping out when he sprints across the room to shake his booty with them a little, or the Grannies getting a kiss and swooning like teenagers at a rock concert.
No. Let it never be said that John Lloyd Young isn't a musical marvel, that he doesn't put on a good show or that he doesn't appreciate his fans. Because he is and he does.
And that's what makes a star.
Photos by Stephen Mosher