Now, I probably need to be careful (and apologize for dropping the "G" bomb), because one of my fellow critics has seen the show three times, and one of the gentlemen who services my car says he's seen it thirty times around the country (and neither appears to have a drop of Italian blood in them). But there's no disputing that Dominic Scaglione Jr. is outstanding as Mr. Valli - first boyish, then rocketing to fame, and even getting a sort of "Al Pacino" moment, taking command at a bargaining table with gangsters. And, like just about every biographical story you've ever read, he loses everything to reach the highest mountain. Then there's his deep talent as a singer, which seems bottomless, and his soaring vocal range, which seems topless. Sampling the Broadway cast recording, I'll also say he's a better Frankie Valli impersonator than the fellow on the official CD seems to be. As for Mr. Scaglione's on-stage energy, well, if everyone worked as hard as he does, we simply wouldn't need national health care. We'd all live to be 100, or we'd all be dead in just two and a half hours.
Second in the honor roll is probably Larry Baker, the show's stage manager, who apparently keeps hundreds of cues popping as props rise up from the floor and giant electronic billboards fly in and out from above. Those billboards, like Vaudeville cards, introduce new chapters in the story, sometimes with Lichtenstein-style cartoon illustrations and blazing colors. And all the actors pitch in, racing on and off with set pieces (of the physical kind), like chairs and tables, and set-pieces (of the narrative variety), like brushes with the law, the standard recording-studio drama (with the hilarious Kevin Crewell as their producer) and also a family broken by fame. But, thanks also to all the rushing around and colorful signage, Jersey Boys defies the inherently choppy nature of biography by absolutely doubling-down with a dazzling array of distractions.
Michael Cunio (as Tommy) is very brash and entertaining as the pushy leader of the singing group (and narrator of most of the story). And, thanks to some very good writing (and very good acting), he also gets to play a relatively three-dimensional character. Michael Ingersoll bides his time in the background till act two, when he turns his relationship with Tommy into a fantastic comic monolog, reminiscent of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple. In the group songs, he doesn't always hit every single dopey low-note, but it was a very smart bit of casting to take a chance on someone so subtly funny. And Shonn Wiley is proud, ironic and smart as the singer/songwriter who cranks out the hits. Finally, after two and a half hours of furious entertaining, the amazing Mr. Scaglione is barely able to disguise his utter exhaustion (for a split second) before the curtain call. And then he starts right in again, for the big Shindig/Hullabaloo encore.
There are a few little problems, chief of which is the emotionally manipulative use of pounding drumbeats from the stadium speakers flanking the proscenium, and flashing lights, occasionally calling to mind the worst excesses of Mamma Mia!. Then again, many modern rock concerts (and the occasional classical music presentation) will try to do just the same thing. Director Des McAnuff does lots of smart things with his stage pictures, but turns Mr. Scaglione upstage at his most tragic moment, instead of working with him to develop a credible reaction to an unexpected death. Either that, or the director simply reasoned that the show could not tolerate the weight of unbearable grief. Maybe this is just the kind of show that requires more tactical awareness of how and when hundreds of objects are swept on and off stage, busily weaving the narrative and the hits together, rather than appreciating every drastic complication in one man's life. In any case, it's an evening of clever and often artistic thrills, with only a few glancing chills.
Jersey Boys is selling tickets through December 27th, 2009, at 18 West Monroe in the Chicago Loop. You might want to see it early, to make sure the lead's voice is still fresh. Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Music and Lyrics by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe. For more information call (312) 977-1700 or visit them online at www.bank-of-america-theatre.com.
Cast (in alphabetical order)
* Denotes member of the Chicago Federation of Musicians, Local 10-208
Presented by Broadway in Chicago, a Nederlander presentation, in association with TheatreDreams.