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Tuesday, 17 May 2011 16:31

Jersey Boys: Can't Take My Eyes Off You

Written by Sheila R. Schultz
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jerseyboysinfo.com/Joan Marcus
jerseyboysinfo.com/Joan Marcus

Before disco’s inferno blazed into a cinder, rock ‘n roll ignited a fire that continues to glow. Jersey Boys, the storyof Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is often compared to Mama Mia, another jukebox musical whose book is constructed around vintage pop songs. Both musicals, targeting audiences of a certain age, capitalize on sing-along-ability. I sing along. Can you blame me? Who can resist the vocal acrobatics of She-e-e-erry, ba-ay-ay-by? Or the sentimental ache of “My Eyes Adored You”? The score also includes “Dawn,” “Working My Way Back to You,” “Ragdoll” and “Earth Angel”.

Historically, the quartet struck gold in autumn of 1962 with a pair of back-to-back hits, “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”. “Walk Like a Man” completed the trifecta in February 1963. With a trio of #1 chart busters in less than six months, the quartet was launched. All three songs were composed by musical prodigy Bob Gaudio.

I can’t wait for the show to begin. Before it erupts, I glimpse the mammoth speakers onstage. The sight of them revives garish memories of Saturday Night Fever, disco extravaganza. The score of that musical features the relentlessly throbbing hits of the Bee Gees, but the resemblance to Jersey Boys is superficial.

Saturday Night Fever is crammed with mirror ball glitz. To quote lyricist Fred Ebb, “Give ‘em an act with lots of flash in it / And the reaction will be passionate.” (from “Razzle Dazzle” in the musical Chicago). Without its gaudy costumes, blinking strobes and gymnastic choreography, the disco tunes of Saturday Night Fever would lose luster.

What strikes me most about Jersey Boys is its simplicity. The musical performances stand on their own. Picture four guys in plain suits and ties harmonizing against a background of unadorned scaffolding. The synergy is mesmerizing. Stunning 4-part arrangements are performed with precision, enthusiasm and authenticity. We feel the vibes long after curtain.

As Valli, actor Joseph Leo Bwarie possesses the falsetto and moxie to work us into a frenzy with each song. (Bwarie alternates the role with actor John Michael Dias.) Bwarie imbues Valli with a paradoxic blend of innocence and sophistication. It works. His voice as his “instrument”.

The book of Jersey Boys (Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) is crackerjack - full of crunch and surprises. It spans five decades. The legend begins with Tommy DeVito (Matt Bailey), an Italian punk with guitar, chops and swagger. This Jersey stud decides to assemble a musical trio. First, he recruits Nick Massi (Steve Gouveia), a bassist and singer with a genius for harmony. Then, it’s 15-year old Frankie Castelluccio who “sings like an angel.”

DeVito wants to mentor the kid. “Sure, he’s green,” De Vito explains. “That’s where I come in. I take this raw clay and I make like Michelangelo... I got a lot to teach him. It’s like my mission.” Michelangelo hustles Frankie into a midnight jewelry heist with him and Nick. Cut to local courtroom. The judge sends DeVito and Massi to Rahway Prison, their home away from home. He lets Frankie off with a warning and advises the boy, to “get yourself a new set of friends.” Frankie ignores the advice – a mixed blessing.

When the three reunite, musical trios are out, quartets are in. They need a 4th. One of their buddies offers to help. The buddy, Joe Pesci – yeah, that one – introduces them to Bob Gaudio (Quinn Vanantwerp), a young musical prodigy. Gaudio joins the group on keyboards and becomes their principal composer. Castelluccio becomes Frankie Valli.

The group evolves a distinctive identity and sound. They go on the road. They are invited to sing on The Ed Sullivan Show. They go back on the road. Personalities clash. Massi and DeVito room together in the hotels. DeVito hogs all the towels and pees into their bathroom sink because it’s a closer than the toilet. DeVito becomes jealous when his protégé falls under the spell of Gaudio.

DeVito’s gambling interferes with his professional commitment. Still, the group continues to knock out monster hits. Bailey portrays DeVito with a calibrated balance of sleaze, ambition, testosterone and talent.

DeVito’s gambling addiction escalates. He is sent packing when his $150,000 gambling debt and financial mismanagement of the group surface. Massi quits later after recognizing himself as the Ringo of the group, leaving Gaudio and Valli to reorganize with other musicians. In 1990, the original Four Seasons are inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame.

Director Des McAnuff keeps the action brisk, the staging slick and the transitions apparently effortless. Sergio Trujillo’s crisp choreography is impeccably synchronized by the quartet. They transmit the music kinesthetically, visually, aurally.

I appreciate Klara Zieglerova’s simple sets. Unadorned scaffolding has been exploited by other scenic designers in a misguided attempt at stark minimalism, which I find it off-putting when used strictly for stylistic purposes. In this case, however, the scaffolding provides a realistic framework for a pack of dropouts singing under the streetlamps of Belleville, New Jersey in the early ‘60’s.

The decibel level of Jersey Boys is just right for rock ‘n roll. I’m grateful it isn’t eardrum shattering. The marinara of Jersey Boys has a tang of nostalgia. Delicious! Caveat: the play’s dialogue is salty. It’s New Jersey, folks. We ain’t in f---in’ Kansas no more. The Four Seasons are aptly named. Each of the original members possesses a distinctive character and strength. With Gaudio’s music and Valli’s bravura, the Four Seasons sold 175 million records worldwide before the age of 30. Mozart would be jealous.

Jersey Boys runs through runs through May 29, 2011at the Fox Theatre , located at 527 North Grand Blvd. For information, call Information is available at www.fabulousfox.com by calling 314-534-1111.

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