Also see Fred's review of Bad Dates
We find Tommy DeVito (Matt Bailey), Nick Massi (Steve Gouveia), Bob Gaudio (Josh Franklin) and of course Frankie (Joseph Leo Bwarie), singing up a storm of stunning hits throughout two and a half hours. Moreover, Jersey Boys, directed by Des McAnuff, is a production which should hold its charm for years to come. The music is both familiar and fresh while the explication providing subtext is actually enlightening.
It's all about some working class kids from New Jersey who eventually come together and sweetly sing their way into the hearts of most anyone within earshot. During the late 1950s, members of the contingent found their way into prison and then back out. DeVito, who plays guitar and sings, manages to locate Valli, a fairly small individual blessed with a large, shining, raise-the-rafters voice. Joe Pesci (Courter Simmons), believe it or not, provided a huge assist for Massi, Valli and DeVito by helping them to bring in Gaudio, the phenomenal songwriter. Gaudio came up with tunes like "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," and "Walk Like a Man."
With a series of smash hits, The Four Seasons flourish professionally while they flounder in other realms. Valli's marriage falls apart, his daughter succumbs to a drug overdose and DeVito falls prey to gambling and cannot pay his debts. Meanwhile, Gaudio elects to step out of the spotlight and retire. Valli, despite it all, continues to perform. Not until they are elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a couple of decades after breaking up, do they come together once again.
The beginning of the show, which I found most engaging, sets up the memorable songs which highlight the first act. Suddenly, the theatergoer forgets that four actors are embodying the singers; it feels like the original Four Seasons are performing before one's very eyes. This adds up to a major charge for those in the audience. As the initial act concludes, all watch as the band turns toward the rear of the stage and stares into bright lightssimulating a live performance.
The production shifts back and forth between narration to and for those watching and the interface among the performers. During portions of the show after intermission, the verbal storytelling seems just a bit much. Granted, we need to understand just what the band went through. But give us more tunes! Maybe that is why the Bushnell audience when I attended jumped to its feet when Joseph Leo Bwarie, as Valli, brought to life the emotive ballad, "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You." I would gladly take ninety minutes of Bwarie-as-Valli and leave the theater feeling thrilled: the young man has a rich voice, spans the octaves, and his falsetto never wavers.
As prolific as The Four Seasons were, they certainly did not dominate any era (see the Beatles) and surely were not heartthrobs for girls/young women. In retrospect, though, the behind the scenes scenario which accounts for layering within the context of the performances, creates for sympathetic appeal. Most likely, not many fans previously realized the ups and downs which flesh out the plot line for The Four Seasons. They were not simply four men whose vocal sound is classic; their problems were significant. This, too: three women (Sarah Darling, Michelle Knight, and Renee Marino) each play between fifteen and twenty characters during the course of the musical. Pretty impressive stuff.
Director McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo push Jersey Boys forward with jolts of energy. Klara Zieglerova's set design includes chain link fences and some rear stage projections (designed by Michael Clark) which add perspective. Finally, one cannot minimize the contributions of Ron Melrose, who supplies music direction, vocal arrangements and incidental music.
Jersey Boys continues at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford through February 22nd. For tickets, please call (860) 987-5900 or visit www.Bushnell.org.
- Fred Sokol