The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons
Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons Book by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice. Music by Bob Gaudio. Lyrics by Bob Crewe. Directed by Des McAnuff. Choreography Sergio Trujillo. Music Direction, Vocal Arrangements & Incidental Music Ron Melrose. Scenic design by Klara Zieglerova. Costume design by Jess Goldstein. Lighting design by Howell Binkley. Sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy. Projection design by Michael Clark. Wig and hair design by Charles LaPointe. Fight Director Steve Rankin. Orchestrations by Steve Orich. Music Coordinator John Miller. Cast: Christian Hoff, Daniel Reichard, J. Robert Spencer, and John Lloyd Young, Tituss Burgess, Heather Ferguson, Steve Gouveia, Donnie Kehr, John Leone, Michael Longoria, Jennifer Naimo, Dominic Nolfi, Erica Piccininni, Sara Schmidt, with Peter Gregus, and Mark Lotito.
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After a year that's seen the jukebox musical crash and burn time and time again, a show has finally come along that makes you think that just maybe there's some value to the concept. Few reviewers have been harder on the genre than I, but when something as respectably crafted as Jersey Boys comes along, I have to admit that some success has been attained.
It's simply not possible to be angry at the frenetically kinetic and intermittently exciting show that just opened at the recently rechristened August Wilson. In fact, there's even decent, non-guilty enjoyment on hand here, for the first time since Mamma Mia! ushered in the style of show with no real use for a book except to string together pop tunes. If it's damning Jersey Boys with faint praise to lump it in that category, it's only fair to give it credit for the inventiveness it possesses that most other recent musicals can't even approximate.
It's that spirit, sparked by director Des McAnuff and fanned by a fine cast led by John Lloyd Young and Daniel Reichard, that allows this bio-show about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons to stand apart. It's a vital, pulsing presentation of the story that takes seriously its subject matter and its responsibilities to its audience, helping the entertaining whole to matter more than the sum of its somewhat disjointed parts.
McAnuff is the first jukebox musical director to really realize that even audiences held captive by their pop-song preconceptions deserve a show every bit as lively as a completely original show with something to prove. His work here isn't edgy - aside from their mob connections, The Four Seasons were the antithesis of edge - but it is razor sharp, with McAnuff keeping a controlling grip on the fiercely frantic nature he allows the show.
Songs all but tumble over themselves, sometimes sung in full but often heard only as fragments. Characters are introduced, vanish, and are replaced within seconds. Major plot twists happen in the blink of an eye, yet are impossible to overlook. But you know from the beginning that you're in good hands and McAnuff never violates your trust, even as he rushes you through the plot with all the force of a rampaging tornado.
The story centers on Frankie (Young), who's coerced into joining a singing group by fellow Jersey boy and frequent nogoodnik Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff). The group takes on a number of members, many forms, and even more names before finding the perfect blend of sound and personality in Frankie, Tommy, Nick Massi (J. Robert Spencer), and Bob Gaudio (Daniel Reichard), a young songwriting prodigy who's inspired by Frankie's unique, falsetto-heavy vocals.
Once the country is hit with Gaudio's hits - "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man" - they make the boys, now The Four Seasons, big stars. But Tommy's mob-financed gambling habit leads the group into serious financial troubles and water hot enough to boil apart their collaboration. But as they go their separate ways, Frankie's solo career ignites and they all begin a journey toward what's truly important and their inevitable reunion concert.
Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's book doesn't avoid clichés or lame jokes ("I'm going to be bigger than Sinatra," goes the setup; it's answered by the inevitable "Only if you stand on a chair"), and Joe Pesci (yes, the actor), who plays a vital role in the group's early successes, is more caricature than character as played by Michael Longoria.
But for the most part, Brickman and Elice wisely avoid integrating the songs with the dialogue; pop songs can't truly be character numbers in a book musical. Most are performance pieces that just pepper the action, allowing the story to develop naturally around them. Exceptions like "Oh What a Night," detailing Bob's sexual awakening, and "Fallen Angel," about a death in Frankie's family, are invariably the show's weakest moments. Yet the dramatic buildup to Frankie's breakout solo hit "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," pegged as a surefire failure by several characters, packs a genuine emotional punch.
Much of this is due to Young, so commanding a presence that it's hard to believe he's making his Broadway debut. If his lightly soaring voice lacks some of Valli's purity, his good-natured spunk and slowly shattered innocence make him a thoroughly charming, likeable presence from the get-go. Reichard pulls off a similar coup as Bob, beautifully balancing his early little-boy lostness with an adult's show-biz savvy before convincingly growing up later on.
Hoff drenches his portrayal of Tommy with perhaps too much Italian dressing, and his attempts at being ingratiating frequently make him appear stilted. Spencer runs into similar problems, but has less to work with than Hoff (as written, Nick is little more than a stony cipher). Peter Gregus is a smarmily effective Bob Crewe (the real Crewe is credited with the show's lyrics, the real Gaudio the music), and Tituss Burgess and Mark Lotito stand out from an otherwise anonymous cast in a series of minor supporting roles.
Some other problems do crop up: The too-industrial sets (by Klara Zieglerova) look like they've been trucked in from a bus-and-truck tour of Starlight Express, and aren't fully redeemed by Michael Clark's whimsical projections. And the second act, focusing almost exclusively on Frankie's rise as a solo artist, never quite matches the first in terms of sheer, compelling locomotion.
But McAnuff correctly ensures that you can't take your eyes off the central quartet throughout. They're snazzily outfitted in Jess Goldstein's costumes and perkily perform the lightly synchronized choreography of Sergio Trujillo, and their creamy harmonies never fail to please. When they bite into the group's better-known songs, the show comes alive with an electricity that makes you wonder if the theater has been hit by a bolt of lightning.
It's an energizing experience, and a welcome one in the darker days of a
year that's been illuminated by too few outstanding Broadway musicals. And,
yes, it's all happening at a jukebox show. Ah well - if it's a shame that
there are any at all on Broadway, the best we can hope for from now on is
that as many possible will provide the same kind of fun and thrills that
Jersey Boys so effortlessly exudes.