There’s an odd moment in the middle of Jersey Boys, a throwaway line that you could miss amid the pulsing rhythm that drives the now decade old musical. It comes near the end of the first act, when the tall tale of the Four Seasons’ rise to fame is reaching its commercial climax. As the group of boys from the wrong side of Jersey gain notoriety with hit singles like “Sherry” and “Walk like a Man,” Bob Gaudio – the band’s songwriter – addresses the audience and lets them know that this distinct sound of the sixties wasn’t for flower children or hippies, but rather for everyday, working class Americans.
It seems like an innocuous notion; hell, what band from Jersey hasn’t claimed to be for the working class? But it’s a profound moment of populism in a script that so often shies away from big ideas and instead deals in wit and nostalgia. For a brief second, the audience is let in on the idea that maybe what made this music so big, what made it prime for an explosive Broadway production decades after its prime is the idea that there’s something universal to it, that anybody and everybody can relate to the simply irresistible sounds of one of the twentieth century’s most popular acts.
At first the idea is troubling, a dated crop of conservatism masking as universality and reducing the cultural context of the music on display into some ephemeral, normalized notion. And Jersey Boys doesn’t do itself any favors, as its true moments of emotional sincerity come when the music telescopes in and touches on the specific and the personal. “My Eyes Adored You,” like all of Frankie Valli’s songs, is barely sympathetic, a song about the notion of losing love but with no real heft. And yet, when we see Frankie sing it to his wife as their marriage falls apart, it becomes something powerful, a musical representation of a unique, personal experience.
So it seems that Jersey Boys has a bit of an identity problem. It clutches to a grand ideal of music’s transcendence and yet earns its real sympathy from moments of authentic intimacy that fly in the face of that ideal. And this struggle between the two poles of Jersey Boys permeates it. It at once dances and roars its way through its not-quite-history with bombast while also stopping and wondering if there’s really any truth in the whole affair.
On paper it sounds messy, like a show that never quite knows where it stands. But somehow, the touring production of Jersey Boys on display at the National Theatre grabs its uncertainty by the horns and makes of it a compelling display of music, theatre, and the tricky ways that they can interact.
It helps that the show is a true spectacle of performance. No amount of cynicism could possibly keep someone from dancing in their seat to the ear blasting arrangements of songs that are nothing if not completely contagious. Of course, the songs are only as good as their performers, and the touring cast couldn’t be better suited for their roles. Matthew Dailey, Aaron De Jesus, Keith Hines, and Drew Seeley take on the roles of the Four Seasons and do so with such vigor that one starts to believe they’re seeing the real thing.
In fact, the most powerful moments of Jersey Boys come when its premise falls away and the audience starts to believe – if only for minute – the Four Seasons are truly taking the stage. In the second act, the audience was clapping for “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” before Valli even sang a note, and by the end of the song we weren’t in the National Theatre anymore. We were in a concert hall in Jersey circa ’67 and nothing could have been better.
In a sense, the audience plays a part in Jersey Boys just as much as the cast does. When the show is really firing on all cylinders, the audience is transformed into clamoring fans, dying to hear that perfect harmony that captivated a country for almost a decade. And in that sense, Jersey Boys blurs the line between music and theatre in a way that few musicals really ever grasp. It’s panache and performance, a spectacle for the masses, but at the same time it finds depth in its characters and truth in its uncertainty.
It’s a show, ostensibly, for everyone with music that was, ostensibly, for everyone. And yet somehow you walk out thinking that it was tailor made just for you. That maybe you’re the “you” that Frankie sings so much about. When the universal blurs into the personal, something magical can happen. As magical as four kids from Jersey finding that perfect sound under a streetlamp all those years ago.
Jersey Boys. Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Music by Bob Gaudio. Lyrics by Bob Crewe. Directed by Des McAnuff. Featuring Matthew Dalley, Aaron De Jesus, Keith Hines, Drew Seeley, Tommaso Antico, Jaycie Dotin, De’Lon Grant, Wes Hart, Bryan Hindle, Miguel Jarquin-Moreland, Austin Owen, Kristen Paulicelli, Leslie Rochette, Jenna Nicole Schoen, Dru Serkes, Jonny Wexler, Keith White, Barry Anderson, Thomas Fiscella. Scenid Design: Klara Zieglerova. Costume Design: Jess Goldstein. Lighting Design: Howell Binkley. Sound Design: Steve Canyon Kennedy. Projection Design: Michael Clark. Choreography: Serfio Trujillo. Produced by Dodger Theatricals, Joseph J. Grano, Tamara and Kevin Kinsella, and Pelican Group. Reviewed by Sean Craig.