A Midwest acquaintance, newly smitten with New York, proudly told me recently how much he loved seeing "Jersey Boys," his first Broadway adventure. I gave him what I hoped was an enthusiastic smile. Who wants to discourage a nascent theater fan? Inside, however, I winced at the thought of what the fellow possibly could have seen.
My issue was not with "Jersey Boys." On the contrary. The canny and exuberant musical biography of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons more than deserved its four Tony Awards in 2006, including the big one for best musical.
The problem is that I hadn't seen the show in five years -- that's five years of eight performances a week, cast changes, understudies and the perils of absentee creative teams.
I've always been uneasy recommending a show I haven't seen for more than a year. (I really mean six months, but life is way too short for such an irrational guilt trip.) So much can happen, especially with the kind of producers and directors who lose interest after the initial reviews and subsequent promotional push.
As it turns out, "Jersey Boys" is in terrific shape. One can quibble comparisons between this or that current and original cast member, but the show is bopping along with the polished confidence of a well-constructed machine, extremely well-maintained.
I know this because, thanks to that prod to my conscience from the Broadway newbie, I went back to see how three long-running shows -- this one, "Billy Elliot" and the relatively recent but recast "The Addams Family" -- are holding up.
The results are upbeat about an industry that, each spring, seems obsessed only with the latest hit and the newest boffo grosses.
This is reassuring, especially at the time of year when producers are worrying about replacements for the past season's shows that might live through the winter. Rather than make a long-term commitment to Daniel Radcliffe's successor, for example, producers of "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying" have made the boldly odd decision to bring in Darren Criss from "Glee" for just the first three weeks in January.
But first, the latest recasting phenomenon:
THE ADDAMS FAMILY
Of course, how many of us -- at least in the press -- could have predicted that, despite mixed-to-dismissive reviews in April 2010, and no Tonys, the show would turn into one of last summer's biggest hits?
The mixed-blessing musicalization of Charles Addams' bleakly irresistible cartoons managed to survive a troubled tryout in Chicago and even lived through losing Nathan Lane -- its biggest draw -- in March. Things slumped for a while, but last week's grosses have the show playing to more than 90 percent capacity.
The draw, clearly, is Shields, who has just had her contract extended through the end of the year. And this seems right to me. As she proved when she dared to replace the dazzling Donna Murphy in "Wonderful Town" in 2004, Shields has grown into a major Amazonian presence with a flair for physical humor. She sings well enough, she dances well enough and she tosses her formidable self into the character with an almost klutzy gorgeousness that doesn't hesitate to play silly.
The show remains both entertaining and disappointing. The problem is the wearying plot and increasingly generic songs. But the good parts include the ingeniously grotesque sets and costumes. The cast, especially Brad Oscar as the showstopping lunatic Uncle Fester, is strong. Roger Rees, classically trained and delightfully elegant, isn't a comic natural to replace Lane as Gomez, who hit all the jokes as if they were actually funny. Imagine, instead, David Niven on a lark. And, unlike Lane and Neuwirth, Rees and Shields actually seem to like each other.
Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, 205 W. 46th St.; 877-250-2929; theaddamsfamilymusical.com
This thrilling, deeply lovable, dance-driven musical, which won 10 Tonys in 2009 and is playing at 85.6 percent capacity, is built for cast changes. The talented boys who alternate in this singing, acting, dancing triathlon must inevitably outgrow the role of the motherless 11-year-old English miner's son with the unlikely passion for ballet. Tade Biesinger, who was Billy at last Sunday's matinee, keeps up the splendid tradition -- this time with poignant acting and a smart physicality that lets us watch Billy as he learns the steps.
So we expect different Billys. Initially alarming, however, was the flurry of cast-change slips in Sunday's program, with absentees including such stars as Emily Skinner and Carole Shelley. All apprehension vanished, however, as this first-rate cast delivered a seamless, heartfelt performance about the devastating 1984 strike in a small mining town and a boy who needs to dance. I'm still impressed by Elton John's ambitious, varied, altogether grown-up score -- unlike his sentimental Disney music. The only problem was the sound system, which blurred too many of these essential words.
Imperial Theatre, 249 W. 45th St., 212-239-6200; billyelliotbroadway.com
After all these years, tours and cast changes, the show remains Broadway's most artistically successful jukebox musical -- the model for shows that use beloved old pop songs while telling a real story. Director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo obviously understood how to tell audiences why they love these dopey romantic lyrics with the simple song structures, the gorgeous harmonic blends and the immaculate yet flowing doo-wop beat. It is hard to reconcile that authors Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice also wrote "Addams Family." Such are the mysteries of the theater.
August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St., 212-239-6200, jerseyboysinfo.com