Also see Sarah's review of Men With Clubs
Jersey Boys is even constructed like a film: the story is told in a succession of short scenes which follow each other without pause, as if a camera were cutting from one shot to another.
Jersey Boys tells one version of the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, packaged for easy consumption using standard biopic chapters: Youthful Drifting, The Band Gets Together, Early Struggles on the Road, The First Big Hit, Solid Gold Success, It's Lonely at the Top, Personal Tragedy, The Breakup, and finally Reconciliation and Summation. Book authors Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice even thought to pre-empt complaints that this is not the "true" story of the Four Seasons by having it narrated by less-than-reliable band member Tommy DeVito (Erik Bates), who tells you up front that four guys will have four different versions of the same story.
Aspiring authors of compilation musicals could do worse than to use Jersey Boys as a model. It's a skillfully constructed machine, and if it never rises to the level of a living creature (to borrow terminology from no less an authority than Jack Viertel), it still delivers reasonable satisfaction for your entertainment dollar. And there's nothing easy about writing a successful compilation musical: just ask Don Scardino, whose Lennon ran for all of seven performances on Broadway.
Here's the basic recipe. Center your show around a songbook that will appeal to people willing and able to buy theatre tickets. Create main characters who are engaging and somewhat well-rounded without being too complex. Make the minor characters (girlfriends, guys with crooked noses) more stereotypical and hustle them offstage as soon as they have established their assigned plot points. Salt the script heavily with obvious jokes and ethnic references (nothing says "North Jersey Italian" quite like an upholstered chair with plastic slipcovers).
Include a calibrated mixture of laughter and tears, triumph and tragedy, and bring it all to a satisfying resolution. Above all, keep the story moving and be sure to include all the group's top hits, sometimes more than once: audiences will forgive a surprising amount of tedious narration if you let them hear their favorite songs. And be sure to end with a big production number that brings the whole cast as well as the band on stage and pulls out all the technological stops, so the audience goes happy.
Skillful execution of that formula is pretty much what you get with Jersey Boys: thank goodness for the hit songs, which make the show fly. Despite the obvious care Brickman and Elice lavished on the narrative, the audience at the Fox never came alive until 50 minutes into the show, when the band performed "Sherry." Hearing a familiar song got the audience engaged with the show, with the result that they started to laugh at the jokes as well. By the time "You're Just Too Good to Be True" made its inevitable appearance, people were responding as if they were at an actual concert rather than a staged re-enactment nested within a play.
The touring cast of Jersey Boys does a good job making the show work. The outstanding voices are those of Christopher Kale Jones as Frankie Valli and Andrew Rannels as Bob Gaudio. Both have several solo turns as well as holding down their roles within the foursome. The Fox sound system was playing its usual tricks when I saw the show on Friday: sometimes the singers could not be heard over the band, while other times the voices were so loud as to be overpowering. The basic sweetness of the Four Seasons sound was frequently lost in favor of decibels, particularly in the more heavily produced numbers; Kale Jones and Rannels showed their voices to best effect when singing solo rather than with the band.
The other real stars in Jersey Boys are the production elements. Klara Zieglerova's unit set facilitates the show's fast-moving storyline: it can be rapidly transformed into anything from the North Jersey industrial skyline to New York's famed Brill Building with the addition and subtraction of flies, rolling furniture, and projections. The lighting design by Howell Binkley, for which he won the 2006 Tony Award, plays an equally vital role in these transformations. But I'm not so sure about the projections designed by Michael Clark. They are more of a distraction than an aid to narration as well as a blatant rip-off of Roy Lichtenstein's artistic style.
Jersey Boys will run at the Fox through May 18, 2008. Ticket information is available from the Fox box office or from Metrotix at 314-534-111 and metrotix.com.