A winning quartet, with plenty of backup
By Jane Horwitz
Monday, Nov. 14, 2011
"Jersey Boys" is irresistible, and the touring company now at the National Theatre gets it almost entirely right.
This Broadway hit (it has been running since fall 2005 and has played Washington before as well) rises well above the so-called jukebox show genre. Subtitled "The Story of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons," the musical tells a tale that transcends show business gossip to become a close character study of four talented but very different blue-collar guys from New Jersey - who just happen to have sung some of the best close-harmony rock/pop tunes of the late 1950s, the 1960s and into the 1970s.
From the moment the guys playing the Four Seasons break into "Silhouettes," the show has you hooked. Soon you're hearing "You're the Apple of My Eye," "Earth Angel" and "Sunday Kind of Love," all leading up to the Four Seasons' true breakthrough song, "Sherry," featuring Valli's honeyed falsetto. It doesn't really matter if this isn't your era. The music will pull you in.
The lead actors are all crackerjack. As Frankie Castelluccio, soon to become Frankie Valli, Joseph Leo Bwarie returns to Washington - he played the role here with the 2009 tour. After a couple of slightly scratchy opening tunes, his voice warmed beautifully Saturday and slid into the high notes that made Valli a star. His acting is also strong, as we observe Valli's marriage disintegrate over absences and infidelities. Nor does it hurt that Bwarie has honest-to-goodness bedroom eyes. (John Michael Dias will play Valli at select performances throughout the run.)
On an equal footing with Bwarie are his fellow players. John Gardiner projects a fine recklessness as Tommy DeVito, the mob-connected lead guitar and original driving force behind the group. He's the one who brings sweet-voiced Frankie into the fold. As the laconic bass player Nick Massi, Michael Lomenda creates a wry, vivid character out of someone who's left as a bit of a cipher by the script.
Preston Truman Boyd brings fresh-faced innocence and wonder to the role of the group's genius composer, Bob Gaudio. Their producer, Bob Crewe, played as ultra-fey and super-savvy by Jonathan Hadley, gets credit for the lyrics.
It's another neighborhood kid, little Joey Pesci (yes, the tough guy in "Goodfellas" and "My Cousin Vinny"), who, the show recounts, brought Gaudio to the attention of DeVito and Valli. As Joey, Frankie J. Galasso has the puppy-dog eagerness of a kid trying to impress the big boys.
The script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice turns "Jersey Boys" into a memorable slice of Americana. Each member of the group gets to narrate some of the saga from his point of view. Early on, for example, DeVito tells the audience, guys like him, Massi and Valli either joined the Army, got "mobbed up" or sang.
In Des McAnuff's fast and fluid direction, the show blasts across the stage like the pages of a graphic novel, with key chapters noted with comic-book-style art projected overhead (projections by Michael Clark). Neon signs drop down from the rafters now and again to signify where the guys are hanging out or performing. Klara Zieglerova's set seems spare at first but grows more ingenious as the story speeds up. A corrugated-steel staircase and wraparound catwalk frame the action. Large props roll on and off, accompanied by telling changes in Howell Binkley's lighting. Jess Goldstein wraps the performers in just the right amount of lam, velvet and sequins. And choreographer Sergio Trujillo captures perfectly the synchronized pop-group moves.
A few minor quibbles: The actresses who briefly play the girl group the Angels (Lauren Decierdo, Denise Payne and Kara Tremel) don't do justice to the gritty "hey-la" harmonies of "My Boyfriend's Back." And actors double up so much in supporting roles that it's just plain confusing.
But if the cast members keep their energy level revved as high throughout the run as they did Saturday night, audiences are in for a dance-in-the-aisles treat.