By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Oh, what a night. A great big Broadway smash called Jersey Boys hits the Music Hall at Fair Park and suddenly everything is all right again.
Soaring on tunes about love, youth and yearning, this show flies right to the heart of what musical theater, big or small, should do. It moves. It grooves. It inspires the audience to roar and stomp and hoot with joy. The power of the thing is irresistible. It might be the closest you can get to a religious experience without a doxology or altar call.
Jersey Boys is the brashest, brightest songbook musical ever devised—those four Tony Awards in 2006 were well-deserved—but this is more than just the gem of a genre. As song after song fills the hall with angelic four-part harmony, the show also connects to something greater. What's up there isn't simply the story of the pop group Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. Jersey Boys also slyly captures the essence of an era—the 1960s and early '70s, roughly the years between Camelot and Watergate—in every sharp gesture, slick hairstyle, high heel and high note.
It also catches the sense of a specific place: Rust Belt, New Jersey. Against the iron-railed two-story catwalks, spiral stairs and chain-link fence of the set by Klara Zieglerova, the show builds its story of the improbable rise to fame of working-class guys who start out doo-wopping under corner streetlamps. Frankie Valli (changed from Castelluccio) and his buds Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi (shortened from Macioci) are small-time hoods (two do time in the "Rahway Academy of the Arts") who occasionally sing covers in smoky clubs and bowling alleys. A younger, taller, more clean-cut kid named Bob Gaudio hears them and drives down from tonier Bergenfield, having already scored a chart hit at 15 with The Royal Teens and his own song, "(Who Wears) Short Shorts" (known to generations since as the commercial jingle for Nair hair remover).
Eager to write for Valli's clear-toned falsetto, Bob Gaudio brings his magic to the young mooks. He's handsome, smart about business and writes killer melodies. Hook-heavy lyrics come from gay producer-writer Bob Crewe, who molds The Four Seasons' signature sound the way George Martin was doing it at the time with the Fab Four.
The better part of an hour of Jersey Boys is spent getting a lot of this back-story out of the way. It's necessary info about a group whose story hasn't been told in Behind the Music fashion before this.
"You ask four guys, you get four different answers," says Tommy (played here by Erik Bates). Each guy gets his turn as narrator. Tommy, we learn, acts the tough big brother to little Frankie, pushing him around until the day Frankie has the stones to declare primacy as lead singer and make Bob Gaudio, not Tommy, his equal partner. Tommy will nearly implode their success when, after an early string of hits, they find out he's in six-figure hock to both the IRS and a member of the Jersey mob.
Thanks to the cleverly structured book by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, an Oscar-winning screenwriter (Annie Hall) making his first foray into musical theater, Jersey Boys zips along on bursts of profanity-peppered dialogue and Sopranos-worthy wisecracks. "I'm gonna be bigger than Sinatra," Frankie boasts to future (first) wife Mary. She looks him up and down and says, "Only if you stand on a chair."
Short scenes blend seamlessly, and conversations overlap into songs that are used more or less in chronological order. Throughout, there's an exciting sense of urgency to it all; the air in the Music Hall crackles with it. And in the show's shrugging, off-the-cuff style there's Goodfellas with a hint of Dreamgirls by way of American Bandstand. The hot pace cools down only slightly in the second act as the boys split up and their lives take tragic turns. Redemption and reunion come, of course, as The Four Seasons reunite—with a refreshing lack of sentimentality—at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. At that point Jersey Boys turns into a concert. Caught up in the medley, we're all just a bunch of (aging) teenagers in love.
That's the basic breakdown. But this show is so much more than the sum of its parts. The staging by Des McAnuff, who first directed Jersey Boys at its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse, elevates every element above and beyond what we've come to expect from those "And then I wrote..." jukebox pastiches. The crispness of the musical arrangements and the sheer thrill of the vocal performances bump "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "My Eyes Adored You" and about 30 other Four Seasons hits into faster, tighter and more vivid numbers than the originals. (And for once, the acoustics at the Music Hall don't swallow lyrics and dialogue, or garble individual instruments into a jumble of noise.)
The actors in this company come from the original Broadway production and the touring casts in Houston and Las Vegas. Playing Frankie is Joseph Leo Bwarie, who worked his way up from twice-a-week performances in the Vegas Jersey Boys. Get this: Every actor who gets a shot at the lead has to be vetted by Valli himself before he can even audition. After that comes several weeks of "Frankie Camp" to learn the five-octave chest-to-head-to-falsetto vocal gymnastics the role requires. And after that, every Frankie has to step into the nearly curtain-to-curtain precision choreography by Sergio Trujillo. It's a bigger role than Phantom of the Opera.