Sunday, April 12, 2009

Theater review: ‘Jersey Boys’ a jukebox musical for all seasons

The cast of Jersey Boys sings Sherry.

By Hap Erstein

As genres go, the jukebox musical rarely gets much respect. These shows built from existing songs, often of one particular composer or performer, usually come up short in critical admiration or awards. Think of Mamma Mia! (pasted together from the ABBA trunk) or All Shook Up (Elvis).

A distinct exception is Jersey Boys, the 2006 Best Musical Tony winner, an involving “behind the music” biography of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, motored by over two dozen of their song hits. The show, now making its South Florida debut at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale, is a model of how it should be done, thanks to a fast-moving, Jersey joke-laden narrative by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, a first-rate cast led by Joseph Leo Bwarie as Valli and those nostalgia-laden songs written by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe.

During the ’60s and ’70s, an era crowded with guy groups, the Four Seasons had a distinctive pop sound, due largely to Valli’s slightly nasal, multi-octave singing voice. Surely every Baby Boomer ticket buyer goes into Jersey Boys already knowing such numbers as Sherry, Walk Like a Man, Big Girls Don’t Cry and Oh, What a Night.

The revelation is the group’s dramatic back story. They were in and out of jail in their early days, in debt to the mob and the IRS, bitterly squabbling among themselves and juggling the challenges of family responsibilities while on the road. It is more than enough to keep our interest between musical numbers.

Still, Jersey Boys starts slowly, as the group goes through growing pains assembling the right personnel, name and sound. Then, almost an hour into the first act, magic happens with an appearance on American Bandstand singing Sherry and the show explodes into concert mode.

Most of the Four Seasons’ big hits are delivered presentationally, onstage or on-air, but a few advance the plot, like Bye Bye Baby, sung by Valli as his girlfriend and his daughter leave him.

Two-time Tony-winning director Des McAnuff stages the production crisply on and around Klara Zieglerova’s Erector Set set. Choreographer Sergio Trujillo handles the precision movement routines that complement the group’s song stylings.

When John Lloyd Young originated the role of Valli on Broadway, he was hailed as a unique talent who would be difficult to replace. On tour, Bwarie disproves that concern, giving a triple-threat bravura performance, doing an uncanny job of vocal mimicry, but also displaying considerable acting chops and athletic dance skill. (On weekday matinees, Sunday evenings and other selected performances, the role is assumed by Graham Fenton.)

Playing the group’s originator, Tommy DeVito, Matt Bailey takes on the lead narrator chores, which gets passed around to the other members, Nick Massi (Steve Gouveia) and Gaudio (Josh Franklin). The performers are all up to the show’s substantial tasks and occasionally have spotlight moments, but like their Four Seasons alter-egos, they are ultimately mere back-up to Valli.

Eventually, Valli goes solo, as the others retire from the group, forced or otherwise. Much is made of Valli’s struggle for another hit and Gaudio writes him a song outside of the usual Four Seasons formula. Disc jockeys refuse to play it, even though crowds are said to go crazy when he sings it. That is exactly that happens when the Broward Center audience hears this “art song” — I’ll leave you to discover the title — a high point of the second act.

Care was taken on all fronts putting Jersey Boys on tour. While its production elements are up to Broadway standards, the show was always about the performers and the music. The creative team demonstrated that “jukebox musical” does not have to be a pejorative term, but we can still hope that other bio-shows about bygone singing groups do not follow.

JERSEY BOYS, Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 S.W. 5th Ave., continuing through May 3. Tickets: $25.75 - $203.75. Call: (954) 462-0222 or (561) 966-3309.

1 comment:

Louise said...

As many of Musicals lovers I LOVE Jersey Boys! It is my favourite ever... Last year I’ve been in NY & I tried to get my ticket …guess what everything was sold out that show how great the show is. Anyhow I end up getting it from a site through Next week I’m going to visit my sister and I just got some pretty good tix from the same place

So I'll be analyzing as well as enjoying the show.