All Things Entertaining and Cultural
“Jersey Boys” may have some extended concert segments and a score full of Four Seasons and other pop hits, but it is far from a jukebox musical. Among the show’s many virtues is its ability to go beyond the usual formula for show business bios and provide depth and texture while entertaining grandly with Top Ten favorites. By trading the melodrama and “then I wrote” scenario for honest, affecting storytelling that takes character and setting into account, “Jersey Boy” transcends shows that include a plot to justify a parade of tunes but offer little or no insight into what propelled those hits or how easily matters could have been different. It transcends “Mamma Mia,” a good musical that uses ABBA songs situationally to tell a story, by being far less shallow and middle-of-the-road. “Jersey Boys” is so strong, it would have succeeded, as both a musical and a work of art, if it was not about a famous group and concentrated on four or more fictitious guys who wanted to leave small-time delinquency for stardom in the pop music industry.
That said, audiences love the familiarity of Frankie Valli and the other Four Seasons. By seizing on their story, and telling it with clear-eyed crispness, playwrights Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, have a greater shot at a theatrical hit. (If they wrote a fictitious story like this, people would say it was modeled on the Four Seasons anyhow, just as “Dreamgirls” is modeled on The Supremes.) They also have a built-in score to which they know for sure an audience will respond. Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe wrote songs that told stories about young love in ways that were at once rhythmic and accessible. Their lyrics will not scare a poet laureate into retirement, and their tunes will not erase the memory of Irving Berlin, but Four Seasons hits touch chords of everyday adolescent dilemmas — They include quotes and advice from mothers and fathers. — and they have a beat that invites both dancing and singing a cappella, if only to launch into Frankie’s falsetto. Between the script, the songs, and the source material, “Jersey Boys” had a lot of work with, and Brickman and Elice capitalized on it all while Gaudio and Crewe justifiably earn another decade’s worth of royalties.
“Jersey Boys” goes into the roots of the guys who became the Four Seasons. It shows how three of them grew up in the hardscrabble world of North Jersey’s working class towns and enjoyed petty crime and scams as much as they liked guitars and singing do-wopp harmony under lamplights. For one, music was just a more legitimate meal ticket. He had ambitions to build a hit band. For another, it was a release from breaking and entering and allowed him to use gifts of tone and harmony with which he was naturally endowed. For the third, it was a way to do what he liked to do best, sing. The kids and young adults of Belleville, N.J. were not bad to the core, but Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi were willing criminals, and Frankie Valli did not mind going along for rides or scoring a few bucks as a lookout or getaway driver. Yes, I know. Lots of show business bios show young people of talent who could have spent more days in jails than in recording studios, but “Jersey Boys” sets itself apart for being sincere about the reality of the situation and for handling it with both gravity and humor in the right amounts. The fourth guy who shares the Four Seasons success is the guy whose songwriting ability is one of the bases for it. Bob Gaudio is working class but not streetwise. He has a more grounded, disciplined background. At 15, he had a hit record, “Who Wears Short Shorts?,” and he is serious about music and business. His musical influence creates the group as we know it. His business acumen insures he’ll get his due from his contribution. His steadiness impresses Frankie Valli and others, like producer Bob Crewe, with whom an ambitious pop group will have to negotiate if they want to get anywhere.
Already you can see “Jersey Boys” has a lot of tangents, a lot to draw from, and lot that can be used to create a context that goes beyond the fast, simple relation of facts most show biz bios employ.
Brickman and Elice structure their script in two separate, compatible ways. Using the group’s name, said by the show to come from the neon sign outside a bowling alley, the writers divide their material into four sections that cartoon captions announce as “Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter,” two of the sections coming before intermission and two after. Spring deals with the formation of the group and Frankie’s education as a man and a singer. Summer shows the group blossoming into pop stardom, especially following appearances on “Bandstand” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Fall is tinged by the revelation the group is in trouble with loan sharks and the IRS. It also chronicles the breakup of the original band members and Frankie’s relationship with his daughter, Francine. Winter depicts Frankie and Gaudio going on with new band members who become backups and shows the Four Seasons going from a ’60s pop group to an icon that lasts through generations who can sing their music at the slightest suggestion.
Even more clever is how Brickman and Elice tell their story. They take a hint from the Christian gospel. Each “season” is narrated by a different member of the band. In turn, Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi, and Frankie Valli tell the back story. This shows that the story may vary a bit according to who tells its. Tommy would certainly have a different take and point of view from his diametric foil, Gaudio who tolerates DeVito at best. The conflicts that arise are honestly dramatic. They are juxtaposed with comic interludes. At times, comedy and drama mix as when a mob leader, on whom the Seasons depend to keep other “partners” off their necks, breaks down crying as Frankie sings “My Mother’s Eyes” on the anniversary of the boss’s mom’s death.
The combination of information and music, the balancing of factual scenes with smart looks at coming of age, dealing with betrayal or corruption, coping with stardom, staying close to family while spending months on the road, and performing with immediacy and fidelity all contribute to a musical that stands every test and goes beyond being a bio or concert to being a full play about how four men go about life while coming together for three hours a day to perform as a unit.
Now it’s time to say — finally — that “Jersey Boys” is fun.
Of course, it adds enjoyment if one is Four Seasons fan. It is an advantage to know every lyric, every chord change, every progression, and every time Frankie soars into falsetto or Massi hits deep bass note. “Rag Doll” is the first “45” I bought with my own money. “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Dawn” are part of the American teenage experience of the 1960s. They could be easily be sung next to “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Satisfaction,” or “Mrs. Brown, You Have a Lovely Daughter.” (I am an “and” person, as opposed to an “or” person. I never see any reason to choose if you find a variety of things to your liking. That attitude not only pertains to American pop vs. the British invasion but to the headier rivalry between The Four Seasons and The Beach Boys. I like both, have all of the record from both groups, sing each of their songs in the shower and elsewhere, and have no call to prefer one above the other. So there!)
The good news is “Jersey Boys” is textured and entertaining enough to hold your attention and capture your appreciation if you never heard of the Four Seasons. Repeating an earlier assertion, the musical would hold up if it was about an fictitious group. Fact and a ready score only provide Brickman and Elice a headstart. The sensibility in their writing gives “Jersey Boys” the luster that makes it a Tony winner and earns it respect beyond its bounty of entertainment value.
The current touring production at Philadelphia’s Forrest Theatre only enhances “Jersey Boys’s” reputation as a well-structured, well-directed, well-performed show. To a person, the four actors playing the Four Seasons give their characters the individuality Brickman and Elice intend. Brandon Andrus’s deadpan as Nick Massi multiplies the comic oomph of his succinct but pointed utterances. Nicolas Dromard as Tommy DeVito aces the difficult task of showing his character’s shady, egotistic side while keeping him one of the guys. You can see how Frankie forms his attitude towards Tommy by the way Dromard plays him to be a jerk and likeable at the same time. Jason Kappus exudes the freshness, civility, creativity, and distance of Bob Gaudio, whose music and lyrics spark the group’s success. (From the age of 12, I have been a fan of Bob Gaudio. He was always my favorite Season because the label said he was the writer — the writer, ahhhh — and when I saw The Four Seasons at Steel Pier, I thought he was the best looking of the group. I was lucky enough to sit next to his daughter when “Jersey Boys” played Philly in 2011, and I got to meet him and talk to him. That was great. And he really does like spending his days sailing the Cumberland River in Nashville.) Nick Cosgrove nails Frankie’s restlessness, wiriness, and innocence in Spring and grows to be a mature, assured Valli by Fall and Winter. It is the most easygoing performance of the four and so well executed, you barely realize how deftly Cosgrove has moved from one phase of Frankie’s life to another until he’s accomplished the transformation.
Dromard and Kappus remain with the “Jersey Boys” tour for its entire Philadelphia run. Cosgrove and Andrus bow out on December 20 to be replaced by others, one of which, Hayden Milanes, has been the matinee Frankie.
Cosgrove, Dromard, Andrus, and Kappus are not only secure as actors. They are fine singers who do a great job in the show’s two dozen numbers and look and sound good in concert.
Several of “Jersey Boys’s” numbers are used for dramatic context or comment rather than being presentational. No matter where or how a song is performed, it has impact, especially the significant “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”
Like the actual Four Seasons, the guys out front have a lot of support. Barry Anderson is the best and most distinctive Bob Crewe I’ve seen in seven times viewing “The Jersey Boys” (three on Broadway, four in Philadelphia). He is unafraid to accentuate Crewe’s gay side while showing his shrewdness and genius for recognizing a hit. Marlana Dunn anchors domestic scenes as Valli’s first wife, the one who advises him to end his name with an “I” because Italian names should end in a real vowel, not a wishy-washy letter like “y.” Kaleigh Cronin is moving as Francine, the Vallis’ daughter. John Rochette and Tommaso Antico do a great job as they fill in for various Seasons as band allegiance shifts and replacements come in. Thomas Fiscella is a businesslike but human Gyp deCarlo and does well in an assortment of other roles.
All goes so smoothly, the monumental contributions of Des McAnuff as the show’s director and Sergio Trujillo as choreographer, so important to the show’s quality and ability to entertain, come as an afterthought and don’t get mentioned until this last paragraph. Gentlemen, take that as a tribute. Your work is so organic and naturally flowing, I had to remember to give you credit for what is a remarkable achievement. Trujillo is particularly adept at translating the Seasons’ moves and sixties dances to the needs of the show. Frankie’s split and knee-slide to stage center are sensational. I hope Clint Eastwood does as well with the film he is he about to make of “Jersey Boys.”
“Jersey Boys” runs through Sunday, January 5 at the Forrest Theatre, 1114 Walnut Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Thursday and Saturday (except for Thursday, Dec. 19), and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. No show is set for Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Year’s Eve, or New Year’s Day. Shows are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Mondays, Dec. 23 and 30. Tickets range from $137 to $40 and can be ordered by calling 215-893-1999 or 1-800-447-7400 or going online to www.telecharge.com. You may also find tickets via the Forrest Theatre or Kimmel Center web sites.