Forget Musical Comedies: Let Tonys Swing to 'Jersey'

John Lloyd Young portrays Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons in
John Lloyd Young portrays Frankie Valli of the Four Seasons in "Jersey Boys," up for best new musical at the Tonys next Sunday. (By Richard Drew -- Associated Press)
By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 4, 2006

I had a blast at "Jersey Boys." So sue me.

I know, it's not "Tosca." It's not even "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels." But it's slick and flashy and it gets the adrenaline going -- which is more than you can say for the rest of the tatty pack of new musicals that opened this year on Broadway.

If the Tony voters have any sense, they will overlook the fact that "Jersey Boys" has no original songs -- it's a jukebox show, based on the hits of the Four Seasons -- and give it the award next Sunday for best new musical of the 2005-06 season.

Some might argue that it sends a bad message to reward a production that, in essence, is little more than a cut-and-paste effort, with really good voices tossed in. The fact is, however, that the wreckage left by other recent entries in this genre -- shows based on the music of John Lennon ("Lennon"), Johnny Cash ("Ring of Fire") and the Beach Boys ("Good Vibrations") -- reveals that it takes more than a little savvy to give pop material a pulse and a soul. Fortunately for "Jersey Boys," the magician-in-chief is director Des McAnuff, probably best known for having shepherded "The Who's Tommy" to an acclaimed Broadway debut in 1993.

I caught up with "Jersey Boys" at the August Wilson Theatre last week, six months after it opened, and it was more impressive than I was prepared for. Although the show is dominated by the electric central performance of John Lloyd Young as falsetto-voiced Frankie Valli, the young actors playing the group's other members -- Christian Hoff, Daniel Reichard and J. Robert Spencer -- are each in their own way indispensable, muscularly rounding out the production's gleeful swagger.

I saw "Jersey Boys" on the same day I took in the musical that is its putative closest rival for the Tony -- that precious cup of twee, "The Drowsy Chaperone." Set in the apartment of an emotionally constipated man in love with show tunes, "Drowsy" is at once spoof and valentine, a show that tells us that it's okay to be gaga for Rodgers and Hammerstein and that, perhaps, there's nothing more embarrassing for a grown man.

"Drowsy," too, has an endearing lead actor in Bob Martin, playing the reclusive Man in Chair, in whose imagination a silly musical in the style of the '20s is reenacted by its original stars. (If only Travis Bickle's weapons fixation in "Taxi Driver" had been limited to "Annie Get Your Gun.")

Bob Martin, left, stars in
Bob Martin, left, stars in "The Drowsy Chaperone," which received 13 Tony Award nominations. Also featured in the offbeat musical are (right photo, from left) Angela Pupello, Sutton Foster and Patrick Wetzel.
"Drowsy" is cute and the idea is fun, and if trends mean anything, it's the more likely winner next Sunday; the Tony has a thing for musical comedy these days. Being a musical making fun of musicals seems practically a prerequisite. ("The Producers," "Hairspray," "Avenue Q" and "Monty Python's Spamalot" are the four previous winners.) The drawback is in execution. Although the conceit yields several funny meta-theatrical gags in "Drowsy," the period parody songs by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison are limp and, with one exception -- Sutton Foster's "Show Off" -- disappointingly witless. And few of the performances are the type of memorable self-send-ups that the Man in Chair continually promises us.

Artistically speaking, "Drowsy" and "Jersey" share a category with two lighter lightweights based on novels and movies: "The Color Purple" and "The Wedding Singer." "Wedding Singer," however, is a mere stalking horse. And despite all the happiness that a "Purple" win would engender for producer Oprah Winfrey, it would represent a minor upset.

The Tony for best musical, it should be noted, is the evening's most coveted prize, partly because it's also Broadway's most potent marketing tool. The past four recipients of the award are all still running, and in the case of the irreverent "Avenue Q," an import from off-Broadway, the statuette was absolutely key to its sustained health in the musical marketplace.

The musical award, though, is not an exclusive barometer of success: You might recall that in the year of "Avenue Q's" triumph, an itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny show called "Wicked" was in contention. Losing seems not to have knocked it one pace off its phenomenal stride.

For major cities across the country, the award solidifies the likelihood of a visit, sooner than later, of a touring version. "Spamalot," winner for best musical last June, arrives this week at the National Theatre in Washington, and "The Light in the Piazza" -- which at the same ceremony collected the Tony for Adam Guettel's music and lyrics -- is a featured event this Christmas at the Kennedy Center.

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