nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
November 9, 2005
OK, so there's this kid, Frankie Castelluccio, and he sings like an angel. An angel. He's living in the suburbs in New Jersey, destined to be a barber, until he meets Tommy DeVito, a savvy hustler with a guitar and a vision. Tommy's the guy who can get Frankie (and himself) out of Jersey. Nick Massi, another guy with a musical gift, joins up with them, but trios are out, quartets are in. Where's the fourth man for the group? Little Joey Fishes (that's Pesci—yeah, that Joe Pesci) finds him, a prodigy named Bob Gaudio; Frankie's wife Mary tells him to spell his stage name with an "i" at the end instead of a "y" (that would be: Valli); and the neon sign of the Four Seasons Lounge gives them their new name. Gaudio writes songs—can he come up with the smasheroo hit that will give Frankie and the boys their own distinctive sound and turn them into superstars?
You bet he can. After loads of false starts, he pens a thing that goes
She - e - e-e-e-e-ry baby (Sherry baby)
She - e - rry, can you come out tonight
And the rest, as they say, is history.
And that, my friends, is the first 45 minutes of Jersey Boys, Broadway's new hit musical. And I mean hit: we're talking positive vibes exploding around the room like hyperactive—radioactive!—jumping beans; a room full of people on stage and in the audience so jazzed and so in synch with the unabashed delight of the thing that they can hardly contain themselves, so that when Frankie and Tommy and Bob and Nick finally break through with "Sherry," the audience cheers.
So how do you take a story that everybody already knows how it ends, a story that is (upon reflection) merely one overused American Entertainment Cliché right after another, and turn it into the most exciting hour of musical theatre this side of Act One of Michael Bennett's Dreamgirls? Know-how, my friend; know-how, and chemistry, and love. Without all three ingredients, we get formulaic junk (or just ill-crafted junk; which is worse?), the kind of stuff that gives Broadway a very bad name. With all three, you get combustion, you get goosebump-inducing excitement, you get the stuff that memories are made of: the happy miracle that makes Broadway the world's showplace bar none. As a great Broadway lyricist once wrote, ungrammatically, you either got it or you ain't. Jersey Boys has got it.
Especially when, in Act Two, creators Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (who wrote the astonishingly sturdy book) and Des McAnuff (director, providing the most consistently exciting and effective staging of a Broadway musical since Bennett's Dreamgirls) somehow work the miracle again. The group has broken up, and Frankie's family has broken up too. Frankie's working hard to pay off Tommy's gambling debts, but the Four Seasons just aren't generating the hits like they used to. Gaudio's written him a solo number, but nobody'll record it, nobody'll play it, nobody wants it. But Bob and Frankie BELIEVE in it and so, wham, they finally finally get it on the radio and it goes like this
You're just too good to be true.
Can't take my eyes off you.
And the crowd roars. And when those horns come in for the chorus (just before "I love you, baby, / And if it's quite alright, / I need you, baby, / To warm a lonely night")—because Gaudio had promised Frankie a whole horn section back in Act One, when they were kids, dreaming of success; and now here they are, in the flesh, er, brass—well, when those horns come in, the crowd goes crazy.
Doing that just once—stopping a show cold, when a song begins—is extraordinary. Doing it twice is...whatever word means really really really extraordinary. So is Jersey Boys.
I love this show, I admit it. I love the 34-song score (billed officially as music by Gaudio and lyrics by Bob Crewe, but in fact including songs by scads of others, from "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" to "Let's Hang On (To What We've Got)" to "Earth Angel"). I love the shrewd, clever, big-hearted book—a fable, to be sure, but one sanctioned by all the living participants (Massi died five years ago; the other Seasons are still with us and apparently very happy with Jersey Boys); hey, if Gypsy Rose Lee can do it, why can't they?—a book that eschews traditional so-called integration for a much more workable formula of pop songs as pop songs, supplementing and illustrating what's happening in the story but never attempting foolishly to tell the story on their own.
I love McAnuff's swift, thrilling, pulsing staging—a feat of stage magic that makes sure we never see Klara Zieglerova's always-in-motion scenery ever actually move. I love the stylish costumes by Jess Goldstein and the lightshow lighting of Howell Binkley and especially the spectacularly authentic yet unobtrusive sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy (we know what Four Seasons' songs sound like and, yes, these songs sound exactly right; kudos, too, to Ron Melrose and the Jersey Boys orchestra for this achievement).
I love the hard-working, high-energy cast. Three women, incredibly, play everything from girlfriends to girl groups to Frankie's daughter; their names are Jennifer Naimo, Erica Piccininni, and Sara Schmidt, and they're terrific. Mark Lotito and Donnie Kehr play the grown-ups—usually mafia dons or the equivalent—and they're great. Michael Longoria plays Joey Fishes and numerous other roles and always seems about to take off into the stratosphere, so light-on-his-feet and exuberant is he. Peter Gregus plays Bob Crewe, the Four Seasons' producer and guiding spirit, with enormous panache and good humor. Steve Gouveia and Tituss Burgess play seemingly a hundred other characters—everyone else in the crowded, almost-epic story.
John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Christian Hoff (Tommy DeVito), Daniel Reichard (Bob Gaudio), and J. Robert Spencer (Nick Massi) are the stars, and they're—well—STARS. If not officially right now, then soon. They perform the songs beautifully, recreating the look, the feel, the moves, the ambience of "Rag Doll" and "Walk Like a Man" and "Big Girls Don't Cry" to perfection (and Young gets a grand musical moment, early on, doing a jazzy take on "I'm in the Mood for Love" that makes us fall in love with him right from the get-go). All four also act their roles with splendid assurance; they're particularly impressive aging, without much in the way of makeup or other physical accoutrements, from teenagers to middle-aged men.
So, here's the bottom line: Jersey Boys is the Broadway musical we've all been waiting for—a bona fide crowd-pleasing hit with nary a drop of cynical commercialism, a show that's dazzling, entertaining fun but never makes you feel like you're being pummeled into submission in the process; a show that's easy to love because it's full of love. We don't get a gift like this every day, or even every season. So cherish it. And don't miss it!