Walk Like The Four Seasons: JERSEY BOYS Tour Hits the Hippodrome

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Walk Like The Four Seasons: JERSEY BOYS Tour Hits The Hippodrome

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com November 15, 2013

We do love our jukebox musicals, i.e. musicals where the songs come from preexisting pop or jazz songbooks. Of the 20 musicals playing on Broadway as of this writing, 6 are of the jukebox variety. And one of the longest-running of them is Jersey Boys, which opened in 2005, and is playing not only on Broadway but also in Las Vegas and on tour. The tour version, happily for Baltimore audiences, is parked at the Hippodrome Theatre for a little while, and it is very nearly the equal of the Broadway mother ship production. Local audiences can see for themselves exactly why Jersey Boys goes on and on.

It might seem that jukebox musicals are easy: just pick a part of the great rock or jazz songbook and hang a show on it, right? Actually it’s hard; songs, even the simplest, imply narratives, and those narratives are wont to clash with each other and with any framework the show’s creator tries to piece them together within. By far the most congenial framework is the one Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, the book authors, employ here: the biopic. Then the songs become events in the story, rather than what songs are more typically used for in musicals, expressing the characters’ own feelings or moving the action along. Of course, if a song was written to reflect events in the life of the composer or the singer, then so much the better, but it’s not a requirement.

So Jersey Boys is, as most audiences are well aware, the story of the pop supergroup the Four Seasons, whose heyday ran from 1962 to 1976, and it has an embarrassment of riches to choose from, as the Four Seasons charted with 47 different singles, and Frankie Valli, the group’s lead singer, had an additional 11 charted singles over the same time frame. 33 songs make it into the show, though some of them are not from the Four Seasons’ own songbook, but date back to when the Seasons were primarily a cover band. The four actor/singers who are charged with impersonating the band, Jason Kappus as Bob Gaudio, Brandon Andrus as Nick Massi, Nicolas Dromard as Tommy DeVito, and Nick Cosgrove (the night I saw the show) as Frankie Valli (alternating in the part with Hayden Milanes), do a fine job of reproducing the Seasons’ distinctive sound. So from a musical standpoint, this show is a decent substitute for a reunion concert. But the artistic success of Jersey Boys is owing to more than that.

What makes Jersey Boys special is not just the music, although the songs were and are wonderful, and beautifully performed, but also the intrinsic interest of the story and the comedy. Though I have no doubt the tale was artfully reshaped, there are several who-knew? moments: when, for instance, we learn that Joe Pesci introduced Bob Gaudio (the one who would become the group’s primary tunesmith) to the rest of the group, or that the members had a relationship with the local godfather a lot like the fictionalized story of Johnny Fontaine and the Corleones. Who knew that three of the members were involved in burglaries and two did time? Or that at one point the Four Seasons had a half-million-dollar debt to the IRS to work off?

The parts of the story that aren’t sensational are nonetheless poignant and well-told: from Bob Gaudio’s deflowering to Frankie Valli’s loss of a beloved daughter to heroin to the never-quite-healed rift between Frankie and Tommy. The revelations are a little surprising to those of us who grew up seeing the group’s squeaky-clean appearance, and, even in these confessional times, still somewhat surprising in that this is in effect an authorized project, based on interviews with the three surviving members of the original band as well as lyricist and producer Bob Crewe, who allows himself to be portrayed not merely as gay (no shame there) but as extremely swishy (a bit more controversial), and a serious adherent of astrology (no comment).

And there are many moments in the show that are just laugh-out-loud funny. As when man-of-the-world Tommy advises Frankie that there are two kinds of women in the world: “Type A: they play hard to get, then they bust your balls. Type B: they jump right in bed with you, then later on they bust your balls.” Or, about New Jersey: “Of course, certain individuals aren’t crazy about living in a state where you have to drive through a landfill, next to a dump, next to a turnpike to cheer for a team that’s from New York, anyway!” One way you know something funny is about to be said is when Nick opens his mouth. It is interesting, because he is the only member of the group not interviewed by the creators of the show (having died in 2000), but they give him some of the best lines, typically delivered in the driest of dead-pan, except for one surprising and memorable moment when his voice rises to a screech. Brandon Andrus’ timing delivering Nick’s zingers is utterly perfect.

And there are a couple of moments in the show that are musical nirvana. One is the moment when Gaudio walks into the other boys’ lives, sits down at the piano, and brings them together as he demonstrates CRY FOR ME, not a hit, a song no one who has not seen the show has probably ever heard, and will not respond to reflexively at the first familiar cadence, as the audience will to BIG MAN IN TOWN. But gradually the three join in with voices and instruments, and we can literally hear the distinctive Four Seasons sound being assembled in front of us. Did it really happen this way? Doesn’t matter: it’s magic. The other is Frankie’s rendition of Gaudio and Crewe’s masterpiece CAN’T TAKE MY EYES OFF YOU, after a buildup which purports to show how only Gaudio’s persistence with DJs got the song on the air at all. When five brass players march onto an aerial catwalk to blast the all-important brass chorale accompaniment, there cannot possibly be a single pulse in the theater not racing.

So, could I possibly write a review of a show about the Four Seasons without using the word “falsetto”? Of course not. We would probably never have heard of the Four Seasons were it not for Frankie Valli’s distinctive vocal range (I have never seen it specified, but some claim it spanned four octaves), which allowed him to soar to incredible heights. His falsetto was seldom sweet or angelic; there was a toughness to it, just as there was to the lower registers. But it enabled Valli’s voice to soar above whatever else was on offer from the instruments or the other singers.

And here is one place where the Broadway show has (or at least had) a slight edge: John Lloyd Young, who originated and as of this spring when I saw it still held down the role (his erstwhile understudy took over in July), is probably the closest thing nature will ever provide to Valli’s vocal double embodied in a young man with a reasonable physical resemblance to Valli. Nick Cosgrove comes close too, but not quite as close: from a vocal point of view, it’s actually less in the falsetto than in the lower registers that the difference is noticeable. There’s a slightly more breathy and nasal quality down below. And the physical resemblance is not as striking. One is more conscious of seeing and hearing Valli portrayed as opposed to magically thrust into our midst.

But this is a minor carp. This is probably the preeminent jukebox musical, beautifully presented. And if you can’t visit the New York mother ship, this will do nicely.

 Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn except for production photo

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