BWW Review: JERSEY BOYS at Ogunquit Playhouse
I am intrigued with juke box musicals.
Mamma Mia! is the grandmother of the genre and it works as a grand scale musical taking an array of songs by Abba and writing a story around them.
The Ogunquit Playhouse has staged their share of the genre in recent years with Million Dollar Quartet, The Buddy Holly Story, Smokey Joe's Café, and my least favorite, Let It Be, a retrospective of the British invasion by the Beatles. In each of them, the music can stand on its own, but the real test of a juke box musical is the story. Without a compelling tale to tell, the genre can fall flat leaving audiences with nothing more than a concert recreation of a musical style.
Not so with the Ogunquit Playhouse's current production of Jersey Boys, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The music is phenomenal. You can't miss with hits like Earth Angel, Big Girls Don't Cry, Walk Like a Man, Let's Hang On, Can't Take My Eye Off of You, and the unforgettable classic, Sherry. But beyond the music, the story reigns supreme with tale of the trials and tribulations of the evolution of this musical sensation known as The Four Seasons.
When Broadway producers approached band members, Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli about creating a musical about their life story, the response was positive. But the amazing twist was that producers were able to interview all band members separately to hear their individual and, oftentimes, contradictory memories of their rise to fame. The result is a stage musical with memorable characters, great storytelling, and a journey that audiences find well worth taking.
Jersey Boys is the success story about four high school dropouts from a rough section of New Jersey who flirted with crime (a couple of them doing a brief stint in the slammer) but went on to be one of the biggest vocal quartets of the '60s.
Tommy DeVito (Matt Magnusson) serves as the primary narrator of the show. He's the one who gives birth to the group's humble beginnings, but who is also the one that dooms their rise to success with enormous debt brought on by a gambling habit.
All the biographical basis of the show is here - how DeVito got the idea for the group when he heard Francis Castelluccio aka Frankie Valli (Jonathan Mousset) let loose with those impossibly high falsetto notes; how songwriter Bob Gaudio (Andy Christopher) got involved and inspired the direction of the group; and how their path to success was plagued with name changes, a lack of bookings, and years that saw them performing as back up singers rather than lead performers. They also contended with the eventual departure of one of the original four members, Nick Massi (Matthew Amira).
This ensemble of actors is one of the best I've ever seen grace the Ogunquit stage. Their performances are polished, measured and always in synch with their balance of storytelling and musical performance.
Mousset is at the helm of the production recreating the gritty, but innocent, street kid, Valli, who always wanted to sing. His performance is original, not a carbon copy of Frankie Valli, as he performs just about every number with that trademark falsetto voice. He's a powerhouse of vocal talent that lights up every inch of the stage.
Magnusson is brilliant as the fiercely driven DeVito and Amira is ever so convincing as Massi, the band member who left the group at the height of their career. In his final center stage monologue to the audience, he summarizes his departure beautifully, "But when there's four guys in a group....and you're Ringo," referring to Ringo Starr who was often seen as merely a backdrop to the Beatles, headlined by McCartney, Harrison and Lennon.
Christopher, as the slightly more educated band member, Gaudio, is wonderfully cast as the more sensible and poised member of the fiery Italian foursome.
As in any juke box musical, most performers have the triple play talent that is needed to pull it off-the vocals, the ability to dance, and the musicianship to play an instrument. This cast scores plenty of triple plays with their multiple abilities and none more so than when about six supporting actors appear onstage as a brass section back up to the stirring rendition of Can't Take My Eyes Off of You led by Mousset in rare form as Valli.
The pace of the show is tight thanks to the eye of director, Holly-Anne Palmer, the choreography is sharp, thanks to Gerry McIntyre, and music direction precise from Jonny Baird. The best I can say of the set design is that it was "interesting" with multi layered scaffolding accessed through a series of moveable stairways. At least, occasional sign changes on the set were visually appealing.
I was jarred a bit by some sound issues during the show. Body mikes weren't turned on when they should have been, and voices faded out on occasion. At times, the balance between back up vocals and lead vocals were challenged with more sound coming from the back up "doo-wops" rather than the lead singer's lyrics.
If you never saw the original group in performance, this Ogunquit Playhouse show is the closest you'll ever get to having seen Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.
Cast Photo Credit: Gary Ng