For many who care about such things, Jersey Boys has raised the reputation of the "jukebox musical." By having a real plot, that of the creation and struggles of the pop singing group The Four Seasons, and presenting the songs (mostly) in their places as milestones in that group's career, some of the disappointing aspects of the typical jukebox musical are avoided. It's almost like a real book musical, except you've already heard the songs. For a large part of the audience, it's those familiar songs ("Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man, and on and on), and the nostalgia they evoke, that are the main source of joy in watching this show (as noted by screams and applause after the downbeat on each song).
Most people probably don't know the backstory of The Four Seasons, but, honestly, that may be because, aside from their phenomenal success, it's not all that remarkable. Yes, some of them were street punks who did jail time for petty crimes, and there were money and marital problems ... but there is little conflict, and of course there's no suspense as to how their story turns out. Still, Jersey Boys towers over other successful jukebox musicals (Mamma Mia!) and scores of unsuccessful ones when it comes to providing more than a revue of popular songs with a paper thin "plot" attempting to hold them together. What is revelatory and more substantial than the biographical story, is what really put the Four Seasons on the pop map and secured their place in musical history: the group's signature sound created by the incredibly talented writer and Four Seasons member Bob Gaudio (who wrote a #3 hit for another band when he was only 15 years old) and producer/writer Bob Crewe. The pair provided a number of the Four Seasons' hits, forming the all important "signature sound" around group harmony and the tenor/falsetto singing voice of Frankie Valli. It was that unique sound (beyond just Valli's high vocalsthere were other performers who sang in that range) that allowed this group to rise above the myriad American pop groups of the 1960s.
Book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice also flesh out the story by having each member of the group take a turn in the dramatic spotlight to give their side of the story, or of some events in the story. The stories are not significantly different, nor in great conflict, but this treatment lets us get to know the characters better and adds more cohesiveness to the musical (one character in particular, that of Nick Massi, is very thinly presented until it's his turn to narrate, and it's at that point that the actor playing Massiin this case, Steve Gouveiareally has a chance to develop a character).
The show has been a smash hit on Broadway since October 2006 and on the West End, touring productions have broken house sales records across the country for over two years, and there have been several sit-down productions as well. The tour's high quality production values (Scenic Design by Klara Zieglerova, Costume Design by Jess Goldstein, Lighting Design by Howell Binkley and Sound Design by Steve Canyon Kennedy), the slick and quick pace (credit director Des McAnuff) and consistent casting shows a well maintained crowd-pleasing machine with no end in sight.
Casting highlights are Josh Franklin as Bob Gaudio, the pop genius who prefers to stay out of the limelight, and Erik Bates as Tommy DeVito, a plumb role if there ever was one, the wisecracking, Jersey boy who can't quite stay on the right side of the law. Another standout is Jonathan Hadley as Bob Crewe, the flamboyant, experienced producer who puts the group on the right track. Joseph Leo Bwarie has the stature and timber of voice for Frankie Valli, and provides an appealing character, but it seems there should be a bit more personality and pizazz when performing with the group. Valli and Gaudio's handshake contract is a key point in illustrating the admirable character of both men, and the two actors playing them exhibit that clearly. As previously mentioned, Nick Massi's personality was barely visible until Gouveia comes to the forefront, but when he does, he does a terrific job with what may be the most quirky and complex character in the group. The women in the lives of the Four Seasons are one-dimensional in this story; the boys seem to have done it all on their own.
Jersey Boys continues at the Benedum Center through February 1. For performance and ticket information, visit pgharts.org. Information on future tour stops may be found at www.jerseyboysinfo.com/tour.