There's no doubt that Jersey Boys is a huge hit in New York, where it won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Musical and has been playing to sold out audiences ever since. But, how would the show play outside of the shadow of New Jersey and without the bridge and tunnel crowds, where the references and in-jokes wouldn't make as much sense? "Pretty damn well" is the answer as evidenced by the national tour currently playing Cincinnati.
Jersey Boys tells the true story of the music group The Four Seasons, from their not-so-angelic beginnings to their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. The book for the musical, by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, moves along at a brisk pace, and contains excellent humor. Unlike many jukebox musicals that incorporate the songs of a particular artist or group, Jersey Boys contains a gritty and gripping plot with well-rounded characters. A biographical musical could have easily whitewashed the more unsavory aspects of these individuals. But it's the unsanitized accounts of how the group found success despite a start marred by prison time for a few members, as well as encounters with drugs, adultery, the death of loved ones and financial despair, that give the story balance. Brickman and Elice also wisely use narration divided into four parts (Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter) to represent the rise and fall of the group, with each of the four band members taking one season. Though some of the Jersey references do indeed fall flat, the impact on the audience's enjoyment of the show is minimal.
The songs associated with The Four Seasons, most with music by Bob Gaudio and lyrics by Bob Crewe, are extremely well known to Baby Boomers, which also make up a large majority of typical theatergoers. Most of the songs are heard here as performance numbers, though a few, such as "December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night)" and "My Eyes Adored You," are smartly woven into the story's plot in an unforced manner. Other musical highlights include "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like A Man," and "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You." This more natural use of the songs within the context of the musical is what makes Jersey Boys successful in ways that so many other similar shows have failed.
The cast for the national tour is uniformly strong. If Christopher Kale Jones isn't a perfect match vocally as Frankie Valli, he's a fine actor (and dancer) and is able to duplicate enough of the singer's vocal attributes to make the portrayal a success. Erik Bates is humorous as immoral Tommy DeVito, the founder of the band, and Steve Gouveia captures the dimwitted, blue collar personality of Nick Massi with a funny deadpan delivery. Andrew Rannells is probably the most impressive of the leading actors, appealingly presenting songwriter Bob Gaudio as an amiable, intelligent artist. All four execute the vocals and dancing required for the roles well at all times. Joseph Siravo (Gyp) and Jonathan Hadley (Bob Crewe) lead an ensemble that comes through with flying colors in all respects.
Director Des McAnuff provides a non-stop pace and unique stage pictures throughout the show, and supplies extremely smooth transitions from scene to scene. Sergio Trujillo's Tony Award winning active choreography wonderfully captures the moves associated with the '50s and '60s, but with modern day theatrical flair and precision. Andrew Wilder leads a rockin' nine-piece band.
Klara Zieglerova's metal unit set, featuring a fence that doubles as a scrim, is surprisingly versatile and is complemented by clever cartoon projections by Michael Clark. Howell Binkley's lighting is professionally rendered, and the many costumes by Jess Goldstein are appropriately flashy and attractive.
Jersey Boys has a lot going for it, including instant song recognition from the core theatergoing audience, a smartly constructed story, and perfectly suited direction and choreography. The national tour boasts a solid cast, and it's easy to see why crowds are quickly on the feet at the final curtain across America just as they are in New York.
Jersey Boys continues at the Aronoff Center in Cincinnati through June 15, 2008. Tickets can be ordered by calling (800) 294-1816.