Peter Marks's Review of 'Jersey Boys' at Washington's National Theatre
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
They wrote that one, too? Aside from being a Garden State trove of earthy delights, "Jersey Boys" is a rock-and-roll jolt of history, a smashing serenade of the muscular harmonies of one of the more remarkable sensations of the '60s.
The chart-topping quartet was, of course, Jersey's own Four Seasons, a group whose mark is forever preserved in a string of pop hits ("Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," "Can't Take My Eyes Off You") and the high-scaling range of lead vocalist Frankie Valli. If their go-down-smoothly achievements were overshadowed by the far more consequential Beatles and Rolling Stones, the creators of "Jersey Boys" -- book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and director Des McAnuff -- perform the excellent service here of asserting their place in a rarefied pecking order.
They weren't a cultural phenomenon, no. They were just a great act.
And what audiences are treated to at the National Theatre, in the musical's premiere Washington engagement, is great entertainment. With a keen appreciation for the group members' salty offstage personalities, Brickman and Elice fashion a slick and lively chronicle of the Four Seasons' climb to the summit, and the troubles that dogged them once they got there.
The story floats on effervescent clouds of pop melody -- nearly three dozen songs by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe that have the power to turn anyone 17 again. (Those who'll groove might even include actual 17-year-olds.) If your nerve endings do not send you spontaneous shimmy-and-shake commands during the rendition of, say, "Big Girls Don't Cry," maybe it's time to have your reflexes checked.
The evening's heroes are the four actors portraying the original band members; they are every bit as good as the performers who created the roles for the Broadway production that won the 2006 Tony for best musical. As the pint-size Valli, the fab Joseph Leo Bwarie sings like an earth angel, and Josh Franklin, playing strait-laced Gaudio, has both the desired presence and the pipes. Steve Gouveia brings the right mixture of quirkiness and self-deprecation to Nick Massi, the afterthought member of the group. And in the crucial role of Tommy DeVito, roguish architect of both the Four Seasons' success and turmoil, Matt Bailey paints an admirably unsympathetic portrait of a talented thug.
Under the solid guidance of McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, the actors ably reinvigorate the sound and style of the Four Seasons. Although most jukebox musicals manage to seem merely parasitic -- recycling well-known songs as a guarantee of box office appeal -- "Jersey Boys" balances the rollout of the hits with ingenuity in storytelling and design. The show adheres to a recognizable formula for record-industry biography. Yet on this occasion the format is used for some bona fide dramatic payoff. And the songs are integrated into the proceedings in ways that prove to be illuminating rather than simply opportunistic.
Overnight success and its inevitable price are standard stuff in the annals of showbiz, but the theme exudes a freshness in the underdog saga of "Jersey Boys." The Four Seasons were one of those groups that came to the fore between Elvis and the Beatles, with their feet perhaps planted more firmly in the go-along '50s than the iconoclastic '60s. Their songs had a consciousness-raising quotient of zero, and tended to reflect the romantic concerns of teenage boys and girls who lived on the block, one a little more savory than the hardscrabble streets of their own childhoods.
"We weren't a social movement like the Beatles," one of the group's singer-narrators reports. The impression given in "Jersey Boys" is that once Beatlemania exploded in this country, groups like the Four Seasons came to seem a bit square, a little too "establishment." (By the end of the '60s, they were viewed as borderline kitsch.) Still, they retained a following, rooted in blue-collar America: "They were the factory workers, the truck drivers," the narration goes on about the fan base, "the pretty girls with circles under their eyes behind the counters at the diner."
Spiced with Valli's distinctive falsetto, the instantly memorable songs, from "Stay" to "C'mon, Marianne," radiate with a restless energy that is replicated in the staging. The scenes detailing the group's ascension whiz by, embroidered on Klara Zieglerova's skeletal set by neon signs and projections of comic-bookish images that look like electric Lichtensteins. A dozen actors portray the various agents, wives, mistresses, recording executives and law enforcement officials who figure in the singers' lives. This results in a rich account of all four original members of a group that eventually disintegrated, not so much because of creative differences as the deterioration of collective faith.
The musical legacy, though, is marvelously durable. The actors have only to launch into the group's signature stylized strut, and Bwarie's Valli need only open his throat, for "My Eyes Adored You" or "Dawn (Go Away)" or "Rag Doll," to get us ready for yet another tuneful swoon. What, you'd forgotten they sang "Rag Doll"? Happily these days in the confines of the National, there are a lot more epiphanies where that came from.
Jersey Boys, book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe. Directed by Des McAnuff. Choreography, Sergio Trujillo; music direction, Ron Melrose; costumes, Jess Goldstein; lighting, Howell Binkley; sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy; projections, Michael Clark. With Jonathan Hadley, Joseph Siravo, Renee Marino, Brandon Matthieus, Sarah Darling. About two hours. Through Dec. 12 at National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. NW. Visit http:/