Why does "Jersey Boys" succeed - and it does, exuberantly -
when most jukebox musicals have been a pain in the Broadway butt?
For starters, the creators of the show about Frankie Valli and The Four
Seasons don't just love this blue-collar DNA-pop music from the '60s. Authors
Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio
Trujillo obviously also understand why they love these dopey romantic lyrics
with the simple song structures, the gorgeous harmonic blends and the
immaculate yet easygoing doo-wop beat.
Unlike the dim-bulb shows that use made-up stories as excuses to plug in
hits by Elvis or the Beach Boys, this one is a straightforward biography of the
group that defined a slick, street sound. Unlike the recent John Lennon bio,
"Jersey Boys" doesn't get artsy with the material or overly selective about
history. Nor is this a sanitized, glitz-revue in the tainted tradition of the
long-running "Smokey Joe's Caf�."
Although the Seasons' story has the celebrity genre's usual rise-and-fall
trajectory, there is no plane crash or drug overdose by a primary player, no
victimization by the Man or The Beatles, no tumultuous trouble with strong
drink and weak women.
So this is an upper kind of downer story. Each of the four guys has a
chance to narrate his own idea of the glory days of falsetto-highs with
"Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man" and "Rag Doll." The worst
thing that happens involves tax evasion and gambling debts accumulated by Tommy
DeVito, the hustler who found Frankie at 15 and put the group together.
Besides, Christian Hoff plays him with such sweet grandiosity that, really, it
is hard to process the impact of his irresponsibility.
And most of all, we always have Frankie, embodied by John Lloyd Young with
unpretentious street-corner swagger and just the right nice-guy ambitions.
Young also happens to have a voice that can be buzzy and rough in the middle
registers and fly with the beat of pubescent hearts in falsetto.
Sure, this is clone theater, note-by-note coverage of songs that combine
soapy, commercial sounds with the deep-leaning pulse of a pre-counter-cultural
parallel universe in which pop groups wore suits and skinny ties and nobody
McAnuff keeps the show from feeling animatronic. Things are pleasantly
underproduced. Klara Zieglerova's set is mostly a chain fence, a metal catwalk
and lots of colored lights. Occasionally, a projection of one of those ripoffs
of Roy Lichtenstein cartoons will show a woman in tears - useful bits of
emotional subtext for a male-driven show in which women are peripheral scolds
Daniel Reichard manages to be both part of the group and above it as Bob
Gaudio, who knows T.S. Eliot but still writes hit songs that make "Cry" into
three syllables. J. Robert Spencer brings an outsider dignity to Nick Massi,
who feels like "the Ringo" of the group. Peter Gregus seems surprisingly gay
for the era as producer Bob Crewe, whose contribution as lyricist is glossed
over. Gangsters are credible and there is even a guy playing the real Joe
There are a few lines - about flyovers and day jobs - that sound too
contemporary. Otherwise, Brickman, screenwriter for "Annie Hall" and a head
writer for Johnny Carson, makes us believe the guys are speaking for
themselves. And Trujillo's choreography finds the joy in unisons of pumping
elbows and snapping fingers-best of all, without a wink of parody.
JERSEY BOYS: THE STORY OF FRANKIE VALLI & THE FOUR SEASONS. Directed by Des
McAnuff. August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd Street. Tickets: $86.25-101.25.
Phone: 212-239-6200. Seen at Saturday afternoon preview.