Review: “Jersey Boys”

(l to r) Michael Lomenda, Nick Cosgrove, Miles Jacoby and John Gardiner Photo: Jeremy Daniel From jerseyboysinfo.com

So a couple weeks ago I had the pleasure of seeing one of my classmates from CMU, Kaleigh Cronin, in the touring production of Jersey Boys when it came through Seattle. Apparently this is a show that attracts Tartans: the tour cast I saw also includes Skye Scott, class of ’10, and Nick Cosgrove (in the picture above), also class of ’10, has been playing Frankie Valli in the other touring cast. I never get tired of seeing CMU alumni in stuff, man — Tartan pride! Anyway, I promised Kaleigh I’d write a review, so here goes.

Jersey Boys, for those unfamiliar with the show, is a biographical musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Growing up, I was one of those dorky pre-hipster kids who preferred her Baby Boomer parents’ music to pop music, disdaining 98 Degrees and ‘N Sync and Backstreet Boys, who I considered interchangeable (I still couldn’t tell you off the top of my head which groups Lance Bass or Justin Timberlake were in). I listened to the Beatles and Monkees and Stones, who were obviously NOT interchangeable pop boy groups, they were GOLDEN OLDIES. “Sherry” and “Walk Like A Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” were the soundtrack of my childhood. So I was definitely primed to enjoy the show.

The play follows the fortunes of the original members of the Four Seasons — Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito, and Nick Massi — from their rocky start in the nightclubs of Jersey to their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the present day. I think it’s fair to say that there’s an element of myth-making in the show; the three surviving members of the group, Valli, Gaudio, and DeVito, were interviewed as part of the writing process, and Valli and Gaudio maintained a fair amount of veto power over what ended up on stage. The result is a show that is focused on ideals and music more than ideas. When Frankie Valli addresses the audience at the end of the show and answers the question of what was the best part of the ride, he says that it was “those four guys under the streetlight,” singing in harmony, and it feels kind of like a pat, PR-approved answer, but it also feels true. Jersey Boys is a play about loyalty and family and the simple things in life.

Well, okay, Jersey Boys is a play about Frankie Valli’s soprano, but I’m going to get to the music in a minute. It deserves its own section, but I want to talk about the writing a little more first. The Four Seasons never had the same kind of media coverage or public face that groups like the Beatles did; everyone of a certain age knows about the Beatles’ rise from playing the Cavern Club to American Bandstand, and how Yoko Ono broke up the group, but I’m willing to bet only hardcore Four Seasons fans knew about the tempestuous past of the group. Jersey Boys fills in that gap, creating a narrative, a legend, a fable with a Moral of the Story, for a group that never had one before.

That said, writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice aren’t entirely presenting a squeaky-clean story (the first time someone said “fuck” onstage I sat straight up and couldn’t help side-eying the girl next to me, who looked to be about eleven years old and was there with her parents. Were they okay with this???). They made the incredibly smart decision to split the show into four sections and let each member of the band tell their often-conflicting sides of the story, Rashomon-style. We get to see, for example, Tommy DeVito’s involvement with the mob from his point of view, which naturally casts him in a sympathetic light as the savior of the group, and then from Bob Gaudio’s POV, which puts a rather more bitter spin on the situation. It’s a great device, and it adds a much-needed level of complexity to a play that could have ended up as pure hagiography.

Or as a pure musical revue. There’s an astonishing amount of music in this play — check out the list of numbers in Act I — for the most part incorporated in a presentational way, as if we, the audience, are the audience at a nightclub or on American Bandstand or at a concert. This is also a very effective device: the few times the show departs from it, like when Bob Gaudio sings “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” while losing his virginity to a prostitute hired for him by Tommy and Nick, or when Frankie solos on a eulogy for his daughter Francine (I think that’s “Fallen Angel”?), things suddenly feel stagey and a little too on-the-nose. The presentational songs work much better; they encourage the audience to lose themselves in the experience, to believe that they’re watching the real Four Seasons. The cast I saw not only performed the songs beautifully, with an incredible level of authenticity and skill (those harmonies!), but worked the crowd really effectively. It felt strange not to applaud after every number the way I would at a concert, because the plot was rolling along and applauding would have interrupted.

“Crying Girl,” 1964. Roy Lichtenstein. (They don’t ca-ry-yi-yiiiii~)

The staging of the show adds enormously to its appeal and its excellent pacing, as well. The main scenic element is an elevated metal catwalk with stairs leading to the main deck of the stage, evoking the industrial environment of New Jersey. Specific locations are created with smaller set pieces — a bar, benches, four microphones, four prison-cell toilets — and a smart use of projections with Lichtenstein-esque illustrations. I love the use of minimal set pieces to suggest, rather than recreate, locations. It’s something only live theatre can do, and Jersey Boys does it well.

Overall, Jersey Boys isn’t my usual fare, but for me, it was time and money well-spent. It’s a show tapping into one of America’s favorite archetypes: the rags-to-riches story, the blue-collar worker supporting his family, the little guy who made good, the success story who never forgot where he came from. For most of us, that story really is a myth — it’s really, really hard to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, especially if you’re trying to pull yourself up by doing something like acting or singing (or writing) — but it’s a myth we need, or at least want. We want to know that sometimes the cards fall in our favor, that we can work our way up to greatness — and that the great ones haven’t forgotten about us in their journey. It’s a good story.

And there are some great tunes along the way.

Jersey Boys is currently in Buffalo, NY, through May 18, and continues to tour all over the US. Check out the website for more details. Safe travels and broken legs to Kaleigh, Skye, and Nick!

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