The latest traveling road-show version of Jersey Boys, now playing in a limited engagement at the National Theatre, is loaded with energy and as stuffed with fab Four Seasons classics as any Boomer on a nostalgia trip could ever want. That said, Saturday evening’s opening night performance of the show drew a demographic that actually skewed considerably younger—proof positive that a show full of irresistible tunes characterized by actual, intelligible lyrics can still attract a capacity crowd.
For those not yet familiar with this show, Jersey Boys tracks the rags-to-riches, riches-to-indentured-IRS-servants and back-to-riches trajectory of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The show’s scriptwriters, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, cannily keep distracting side-plots to a minimum and deploy the Four Seasons’ music in a way that advances the narrative rather than overshadowing it.
As rock hagiographies go, this one is grittier and more truthful than most. True to the genre, the show portrays our guitar heroes as tough down-and-outers who almost miraculously achieve escape velocity from their hopelessly brutalized urban moonscape, laced as it is with fusillades of the F-bomb and periodic stints in the slammer. How do they do it? With hard work and passionate self-belief, all joined at the swiveling hip with uncommon musical talent and synergy.
To prove the point, the show somehow manages to stuff in most of the Four Seasons’ greatest hits—and great ones they truly are, including “Earth Angel,” “Short Shorts,” “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Oh, What a Night,” “Let’s Hang On,” and others.
Like almost all rock bands, the Four Seasons, as it evolved, found its superstar figure in Frankie Valli (Joseph Leo Bwarie), a raw young kid with a miraculous, iconic voice. Its unique distinctiveness was attributable primarily to its unearthly, laser-clear falsetto whose expressiveness at times could eclipse the refinements of an experienced operatic countertenor.
We first glimpse this remarkable figure as an urban naïf and watch him grow, initially under the questionable tutelage of neighborhood tough—and singer-guitarist—Tommy DeVito (John Gardner) and later via the friendship of key late-arrival and group tunesmith Bob Gaudio (Preston Truman Boyd). The inclusion of bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda)—the group’s self-confessed Ringo Starr— rounds out the repertoire and the sound, and we’re off and running.
At the heart of the show, of course, is Joseph Bwarie’s portrayal of Frankie Valli. Looking a little bit like the late Sal Mineo, Bwarie is compact in size and stature, but possesses a phenomenally expressive vocal instrument. He takes Valli’s patented falsetto and shoots it straight into the stratosphere with knife-clear clarity. At the same time, his phenomenal diction carries each song’s much-better-than-usual lyrical argument to the rafters so you don’t miss a thing.
This is not a swaggering, rock-star performance but a thoughtful one that follows Valli’s youthful ineptness into an evolving sense of loyalty, control, and ultimately, his power of vision. If it doesn’t always track with the real Frankie Valley, Bwarie most certainly does portray this classic rocker as an enduring, sympathetic, and, in the end, world-wise figure who learns through a deeply personal family tragedy that sheer talent is not always a bulwark against individual failure and disaster.
Bwarie is perhaps at his best in the show’s focal vocal, the monster hit that almost wasn’t produced, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” a punchy love-ballad, driven by the addition of a “Chicago”-style brass ensemble. Bwarie begins crooning the song expressively and romantically before kicking it up a notch into the song’s memorable chorus—a lesson in calibration that today’s perpetual rock-belters would do well to emulate. It’s a heck of a performance, and even better if your own big romance grew up with the song.
As is often the case in a good show, Bwarie’s Frankie has good company in his fellow rockers. As guitarist and part-time hood Tommy DeVito, the ensemble’s actual founding spirit, John Gardner is superb in portraying a troubled character whose very real musical and management skills are constantly eclipsed by his consistently bad life choices. Michael Lomenda’s Nick Massi, while clearly a back bencher, is also the group’s masterful bass ground, anchoring their distinctive, tight harmonies while providing occasional bits of humorous angst to lighten up the evening’s more somber moments.
Preston Truman Boyd is top-notch in the key role of Bob Gaudio, the final but key element in the evolving Four Seasons’ first burst of success. While still just a kid, Boyd’s Gaudio pens original hit after original hit, cementing the Four Seasons’ lengthy tenure in Top 40 nirvana. He also has an uncanny knack for business technicalities, unlike Tommy DeVito, and steers the group clear of most musical and contracting shoals until Tommy undermines the structure entirely.
Boyd’s portrayal of Gaudio is meticulous and thoughtful, and his vocals—though his character is sometimes reluctant to sing them—are smooth, well articulated, and delivered with considerable passion.
The show’s lively chorus and bit players liven things up further. And the “Jersey Boys Orchestra” under the direction of conductor John Samorian is crisp, reliable, colorful, and deadly accurate. The only off-note in this show, at least for us, was “My Boyfriend’s Back,” a humorous classic fronted by the all-female group, “The Angels.” They took the song way too fast, and its essential hollow goofiness was lost.
All in all, though, the efforts of the orchestra and the cast, along with the brilliant singing of the Boys themselves are considerably enhanced by the audio of sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy. As deployed by the National’s staff, the sound of this rock show is the way a rock show should be—not too high on the volume, not über-heavy on the bass, and mixed so the nuance of each vocal, as well as its lyrics, comes through without distortion.
Klara Zieglerova’s scenic design is almost absurdly simple, yet evocative and effective. Dominated by rising and falling chain-link fences—the typical post-industrial décor of almost any fading urban landscape—the set is jazzed by colorful, descending marquee lights and massive Warhol-Lichtenstein-inspired pop-art visuals that enhance the Broadway-Vegas-Hollywood feel of 1960s rock heaven.
Jersey Boys continues thru Jan 7, 2012 at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave, NW, Washington, DC.
Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe.
Directed byDes McAnuff
Music Direction by Ron Melrose
Presented at the National Theatre
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: Two hours, forty minutes including a single intermission.