Friday, October 29, 2010

Theater Review: Jersey Boys

I confess that I was more than a bit apprehensive as I approached Jersey Boys when it opened at the August Wilson in New York during November of 2005. I am not a fan of the “jukebox musical,” and I was never convinced that songbook shows were intended for serious criticism. It certainly didn’t help, either, when a middle-aged woman in the center aisle seat of the third row tapped me on the shoulder to explain excitedly that she had already seen three preview performances, that she might annoy me by singing along with the performers or, in her wild delirium, by pushing up against my seat. This unexpected prelude certainly did not inspire hope for an enjoyable evening in the theatre. Nevertheless, by the final curtain I was surprised to find that I had been moved deeply by the entire experience.  

Now that a touring production of the musical has arrived at the Forrest Theatre in Philadelphia, I had an opportunity to see whether I had somehow overrated the show five years ago. I was determined to remain objective, to judge fairly whether the production, which was awarded the Tony in 2006 for Best Musical, still deserves the euphoric response it appears to receive wherever it plays.  

The show’s book (written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Ellis) tells the tale of four blue-collar Italian boys from New Jersey who became the Four Seasons and, in 1962, broke into the music world with “Sherry.” The four central figures in the musical are splendidly realized in the Philadelphia performance. Tommy DeVito (Matt Bailey), Bob Gaudio (Quinn Vanantwerp), Nick Massi (Steve Gouveia) and Frankie Valli (Joseph Leo Bwarie) make up the quartet. Although all of these roles are well cast, it is Bwarie as Valli whose top-rank singing really rocks the theatre and sends the house into repeated cheering and applause. You can believe that the qualities that made the quartet’s albums so popular are displayed onstage to their fullest.

Each member of the group takes his turn in narrating how the four men rose from lower-class “doo-woppers” to become members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.  The action unfolds on Klara Zieglerova’s splendid, strong, simple scaffold set, which is always beautifully illuminated by Howell Binkley. And Des McAnuff’s lucid direction assures that a spectacular two-hour Jersey Boys marathon is presented with verve and precision.

The musical numbers, choreographed by Sergio Trujillo and excellently performed, are as exhilarating as anything now on a Broadway stage.  They are the show's strongest attraction, but the libretto is consistently interesting and often heartfelt. The tale traces the constant seesawing existence that often occurs in show business. In the play’s early scenes, we see that the marginal lives these lads led sometimes resulted in jail sentences for a couple of the boys. Prison was, for them, “the Rahway academy of the Arts.”  And yet, when the entertainers finally don their matching maroon blazers, we know that the team had reached the top. 

But success is balanced with disappointments: gambling habits result in heavy debt; Frankie experiences a personal tragedy; Tommy becomes erratic and disorganized when he feels slighted. However, the musical numbers (which include “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls,” and “An Angel Cried,”) are the show’s strongest suit.  And though the supporting performances are all commendable, I must single out for praise Joseph Siravo, the fine actor who plays both a fawning record producer and a mob boss.

In a production filled with show-stoppers, it’s difficult to choose one number as the best or the most effective. However, I’d probably nominate “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”  During most of the evening, the orchestra (under Ron Melrose’s direction) is hidden. For this song, however, several horn-players appear on the scaffold to accompany the quartet.  A number, sung in four-part harmony, which nobody wanted to produce because it couldn’t be pigeonholed into a particular genre, inexplicably became a smash hit. 

But almost everything here is memorable. And so, with the permission of those Jersey Boys, I shout, “Oh, What a Night!”