“Oh what a night”, indeed! I’m almost embarrassed to admit how much I enjoyed the National Tour of Jersey Boys. This fantastic musical production charts the decades-long career of Frankie Valli and his band mates in the platinum-selling group “The Four Seasons” from a street corner in New Jersey all the way to their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Along the way, we watch them grow from young men with big dreams into adults struggling to forge their own creative identities while avoiding the pitfalls of fame. Their rise to superstardom is populated by a hit parade of musical numbers, including “Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, and the massive hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”.
I cannot praise Joseph Leo Bwarie enough. As Frankie, the musical and dramatic nexus of the production, he puts on a dynamite show. He possesses an incredible vocal range that allows him to produce spot on recreations of the real Valli’s many hits. His tone is clear and pleasing, and his sky-high falsetto seems utterly effortless. His quiet offstage manner belies a set of lithe, graceful dance moves on par with those of Elvis or even James Brown. In addition, Bwarie exhibits the greatest emotional complexity of any of the characters. This is perhaps an unfair statement, given the greater stage time and overall attention afforded him, but nonetheless by the end his dramatic range had me duly impressed. As Frankie, Bwarie emerges as a supremely talented, compassionate figure constantly torn between the celebrity lifestyle and the rough and tumble ways of his New Jersey hometown. Without giving away any details, his devotion to the old neighborhood quickly reveals itself to be both his greatest strength and his Achilles heel.
The other three band members bring an entertaining mix of personalities and raw talent to the table. Josh Franklin proves an affable and engaging narrator in the role of Bob Gaudio, the group’s keyboardist and main songwriter. Through Bob’s comparatively inexperienced eyes, the events of the Four Seasons’ meteoric rise to fame are framed with a sense of wonder and naïve excitement, which keeps the play light on its feet even during scenes of professional and personal strife. Matt Bailey plays the hard nosed Tommy DeVito, the band’s guitarist and longtime manager. Bailey does an admirable job keeping Tommy a somewhat sympathetic character, which proves an increasingly difficult task as his bad habits gradually threaten to ruin the whole band. My favorite of the bunch is droll bassist Nick Massi, played to the hilt by Steve Gouveia. While he has by far the least stage time, Gouveia squeezes every line for maximum effect, delivering the show’s funniest moments during a hilarious rant late in the middle of Act Two. All three men are superb vocalists, delivering powerful solos and precise harmonies with equal skill and flourish.
The four are supported by a top-notch supporting cast and orchestra, whose members each play several roles. This directorial decision results in several fun moments, wherein a gangster, DJ, or call girl will emerge a scene later as a virtuoso guitarist, trombonist, or lead singer. The fact that these cast and band members successfully juggle multiple singing, dancing, acting, and instrumental roles underscores the impressive talent level of the entire show.
Besides the fantastic music, the visual design of the show deserves its own standing ovation. By strategically combining a few set pieces, including tables, mic stands, and a lamppost, with carefully chosen lighting, the scenic and lighting designers work in conjunction to create locales ranging from street corners and bowling alleys to recording studios and massive amphitheaters. To set the mood for each new song or big transition, “pop art” bursting with vibrant color and tongue in cheek humor (think of the works of Roy Lichtenstein) appears on several video screens above the stage. The video screens also play an important role in the show’s most touching scene, which, without giving away plot details, involves Frankie singing the sorrowful ballad “Fallen Angel” to a character walking across a beautiful projected sunset.
In addition, the show pulls an impressive trick in the second act, an illusion which serves as a reminder of why Howell Binkley won the Tony for lighting design after Jersey Boys’ Broadway premiere. At one point after knocking out another Four Seasons hit, the four band mates walk upstage to what appears to be a black curtain, when suddenly, they are silhouetted by giant back-mounted lights and applauded by the recorded sounds of a deafening crowd. The effect is stunning: the stage seems to spin 180 degrees, and the audience is suddenly left watching the group perform from backstage. This startling perspective shift from outside observer to VIP insider turns the production temporarily on its head. The audience sees what Frankie, Nick, Bob, and Tommy see, and perhaps gains a little insight into their emotional journey from the street to the big stage. At the very least, they’re forced to take a minute to pick their jaws up off the floor.
The thin plot is the show’s only weakness. The production rushes through the band’s career without much investment in character development or fleshed-out dramatic situations, and we’re left with several disposable personalities and throwaway scenes along the way (perhaps this is why the overlapping casting choices work so well). For example, the issue of Frankie and his band mates’ infidelity is reduced to a normal way of dealing with stress on the road, expressed by Gaudio as a simple dichotomy of “your home family and your road family”. In one particular scene, Frankie is arguing with his wife during a rare home stay about his long touring schedule and the damage it is doing to their family. Rather than treading carefully through the quandary of financial security versus emotional availability, the script makes his wife out to be the unpleasant, nagging shrew, while Frankie remains the wayward, yet unimpeachable, provider. Even if this is not the aim of the writers, the lack of stage time afforded to such family matters makes it a perception difficult to correct. Ultimately, the show is about the music and not the group’s home life, but this and other half-baked onstage relationships detract from an otherwise amazing theatrical production.
Despite this issue, this is one show that shouldn’t be missed. The performers and orchestra are terrific, and the music catalog simply can’t be beat. The well planned sets and costumes will transport you effortlessly through the decades, and the lighting and visual effects will awe even the most jaded purist. Some might find the thin storyline indeed bothersome, but the vast majority will be too busy smiling and clapping to notice. If the number of audience members loudly humming and singing the soundtrack as they leave the theater is any measure of success, then I think Jersey Boys is going to clean up in the District.
Jersey Boys – TOP PICK!
Music by Bob Gaudio . Lyrics by Bob Crewe
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise
Directed by Des McAnuff
The Official Broadway Tour, presented at the National Theatre
Reviewed by: Ben Demers