Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio, and Nick Massi were just four guys from blue collar families in New Jersey whose pasts included mob ties, prison records, and family strife. But they also liked to sing and they were all very good at making music. Featuring dozens of songs, and told in chronological order, the musical follows the struggles they encountered on the road to success and portrays the deep connection, friendship, loyalty and trust they had in each other. It also shows how they found a unique sound, unlike any at that time, with the combination of the high-pitched tenor voice of Valli and the songwriting expertise of Gaudio.
Bookwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice interviewed the three living band members (Massi had passed away before the musical debuted) to craft the script for the show and to ensure the musical was rooted in accuracy. They also found a simple but incredibly satisfying way to portray the drama behind the success of the band by having each of the four members take turns in narrating the group's story. Video screens show the names of the four seasons, fall, winter, spring and summer, as each man takes his turn, presenting their different perspectives and their slightly different memories. This frames the seasonal changes the band encountered along their rocky journey to rock 'n' roll success and ties the story directly to the title of the group.
The Broadway production won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and the London production of the show won the Olivier Award for Best New Musical. While part of the reason the musical has been so successful involves the extremely fascinating behind-the-scenes story it tells and the vast catalog of recognizable hit songs in the show, I think it's also due to the emotional connection the audience has with the story and the fact that we witness, first hand, how four virtually unknown performers morph into the Four Seasons in front of our eyes. That live experience, which features vocal styles and dance moves modeled directly on the original group, is something that the movie version of the musical wasn't able to achieve and why I believe it flopped on film. Seeing four talented young men honor these famous individuals while they also become a winning quartet on stage themselves is quite joyous and moving.
Under Larry Raben's assured direction, the four men in the show don't exactly mimic the bestselling quartet but instead pay homage to them while also bringing the foursome to life with multi-dimensional, realistic performances full of drama and humor. Justin Albinder is great as Valli. His clear and beautiful singing voice hits the recognizable high notes that anyone who has heard Valli sing is familiar with and he is also quite good at portraying the changes Frankie goes through, from frantic boy to assured man, as he grows and learns life lessons over the years the show covers. As Tommy DeVito, Anthony Fortino has the perfect blend of cocky ego and machismo swagger to play the villain of the piece, but he also creates a nuanced portrayal that helps us understand that DeVito, while very controlling in nature, was just doing what he thought was best to help with the band's success.
With a beautiful, rich and pure voice, James D. Gish is exceptional in bringing Bob Gaudio's vocals to life while naturally depicting the young teenager who had a hit song with "Short Shorts" before joining the group, and also had the clarity, business savvy and intelligence to know what he needed to do in order to protect himself, Frankie, and the band. As Nick Massi, the quiet member of the group, Tommy McDowell may not say much, but he gets some of the best comic lines in the show and manages to say a lot with just a few lines of dialogue. Under Alan Ruch's first-rate music direction, the harmonies the foursome create are quite thrilling.
The hardworking ensemble features ten individuals who play dozens of parts, including Terry Gadaire, who turns in a crowd-pleasing performance as the group's manager and main lyricist, Bob Crewe, and Merissa Haddad, who is harsh, rough, and quite realistic as Frankie's wisecracking wife Mary. Also, Matt Zimmerer and Lynzee Foreman portray several characters with ease, including the mafia head who assists the group at a crucial time and a reporter that Frankie falls for, respectively, and Eric Zaklukiewicz is a hoot as the fast-talking and frantic Joe Pesci.
Choreographer Peggy Hickey's synchronized dance moves are representative of the style of the Four Seasons and many other groups of the period. Robert Kovach's effective set design features a permanent second level in the form of a large bridge and Daniel Davisson's ever-changing lighting is simply sublime in how it works perfectly for both the dialogue scenes and the high-octane performance numbers. The period costumes designed by Cari Smith include some richly tailored suits for the quartet, and Kelly Yurko's wigs and make-up help the ensemble quickly morph from one character to the next. Dave Temby's sound ensures that every line of dialogue and lyric is crystal clear.
With over thirty songs, Jersey Boys is a show full of recognizable hit pop tunes but also a swift moving musical that covers many years, settings and characters to depict how the Four Seasons became one of the most successful pop groups of all time. The Phoenix Theatre Company's production features an exceptional cast and gorgeous creative aspects which, when combined with seeing the struggles the quartet went through to become successful, make for a vastly entertaining experience.
Jersey Boys, through March 10, 2019, at The Phoenix Theatre Company, 100 E. McDowell Road, Phoenix AZ. Tickets can be purchased at phoenixtheatre.com or by calling (602) 254-2151
Book by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
*Member, Actors' Equity Association
*Members of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors & stage managers in the U.S.