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Chicago by John Olson

Jersey Boys
Bank of America Theatre

Also see John's review of These Shining Lives

Jersey Boys
Michael Ingersoll, Cory Grant, Drew Gehling and Bryan McElroy
With their Wicked about to close after a 3-1/2 year run, the Broadway in Chicago people apparently thought it time to bring critics back for another look at their long-run-king in waiting, Jersey Boys. Nearly a year and half into its Chicago engagement, could the show be getting a little stale? And how has it survived the loss of its two leads? Last Fall, Chicago's well-received Frankie Valli, Jarrod Spector, graduated to play that role on Broadway after the equally highly regarded Tommy DeVito after Jeremy Kushnier had already moved to the Jersey Boys company in Las Vegas (he is now with the Toronto cast).

The news is all good. With the two remaining original Chicago company "boys" growing into their roles quite impressively, a new Frankie who has handled understudy and matinee duties in the role on Broadway and a sexy new Tommy, the balance and chemistry among the boys has been tweaked just to enough to make the show worthy and even demanding of a return visit.

Drew Gehling as Bob Gaudio and Michael Ingersoll as Nick Massi have grown into their parts so successfully as to give their characters added weight to the story. Though the script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice gives each of the four a chance to narrate a portion of the biography, the focus has generally been the greatest on Frankie and Tommy, roles for which John Lloyd Young and Christian Hoff won Tonys for the 2005-06 season. The increased onstage confidence and the character insights shown by Gehling and Ingersoll bring the four characters into greater balance. Gehling, who I described as "a likable Bob Gaudio" when the original Chicago cast opened in October of '06, now gives Gaudio a sense of wisdom that makes him the heart and soul of the piece as well as a presence that makes you take notice of him, even when he's only observing Frankie perform "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You" on stage from Bob's vantage point above on the catwalk.

Ingersoll, who has few lines in the first act, gives us the emotions behind the mostly silent Nick Massi when Nick becomes narrator in the first half of act two. We believe Nick's reasons for leaving the group when he explains what it feels like to be the "Ringo" of a popular quartet. Fifteen months ago, I said he was "fine" in the role. To be honest, I remember having been more impressed than that, so let me apologize for that faint praise and say now that he creates a fully realized character from an economically written role. Also impressive among the continuing cast members is Craig Laurie, whose Bob Crewe I described as "slightly effeminate" 15 months ago. His Crewe now has a greater flamboyance but also an increased aura of professional confidence and power. Since the script establishes Crewe as possessing stereotypical gay mannerisms, it seems wise to commit to those choices more fully while acknowledging Crewe's undeniable show business instincts and artistic talents.

Chicago native Cory Grant is the new Frankie and is a worthy successor to Jarrod Spector. He does less an imitation of Frankie Valli's singing voice—his falsetto is strong, though a little lower and colored differently than Valli's—but on a third viewing of the show, such a minor variation is welcome. Grant handles the aging of his character from teen to middle-aged man, the emotional demands of the loss of his daughter and his complex relationship with Tommy most convincingly. Playing Tommy, Bryan McElroy has a little less luck finding those complexities. His physical presence and sex appeal are up to the demands of the character, but I thought he pushed too hard and went for easy surface-level laughs too often. Tommy's a dark character—manipulative and dishonest even while remaining charming and appealing on certain levels—and I think it's a mistake not to acknowledge that. McElroy's interpretation, though, is consistent with what seems to be a directorial choice to play all characters' comic moments and Italian-American stereotypes rather broadly. That's probably not the choice I would make, but it doesn't compromise the show's weightier and touching elements.

Much has been written about producers' efforts to make these blockbuster musicals independent of star performances, and Jersey Boys is somewhat that type of machine. Its production values, including 609 lighting cues and 196 costumes, go off without a hitch, but it still needs star performances from the four men at its center. The current cast delivers the goods musically and dramatically and makes Jersey Boys well worth either a return or a first-time visit.

Jersey Boys continues its open-ended run at the Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St., Chicago. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30 p.m.; Wednesdays at 2 p.m m. and 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m.; and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at all Broadway in Chicago box offices or through Ticketmaster. Ten $25.00 rush tickets are available at the Bank of America Theatre box office daily on the day of performance. As many as 40 additional seats, subject to availability at select performances, are made available online at Ticketmaster.com and at the Bank of America Theatre Box Office. Rush ticket limit is two per patron and all seats are limited view.

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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