It’s noteworthy that a musical about the rise and great success of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons does not use the 1960s pop group’s name in the title, but instead makes reference to their home state – a place that takes on a near-mythic greatness here.
“Jersey Boys”, the touring Broadway production, does indeed celebrate the life and times of Valli and his fellow band members as they rocket to superstardom, but in the play’s earliest scenes, it’s also Jersey itself that gets a fond nostalgic nod. When young Jersey Boy Tommy DeVito decides to form a band and discovers a neighborhood kid named Frankie who has an amazing voice, he knows they have the potential to make a real go of it in the music industry – even if Tommy’s decision to finance a lot of their efforts through criminal behavior creates serious problems along the way, like Tommy’s stint in jail for getting little Frankie into some breaking and entering activities.
But hey, it’s Joisey – where guys don’t lie to their mothers, don’t tell their wives the truth, where the women are sassy and give as good as they get, and everybody’s got a real in-your-face attitude. Forget the Four Season’s catalogue of catchy hits – this play is the ultimate Chris Christie show, a brash, loud, right-back-at-ya show about what makes Jersey great. Love us or hate us, the play says, but we’re sure not dull. (The production even cautions audiences that this show contains “flashy strobe lights, loud gunfire, and authentic, profane Jersey vocabulary.”)
Neither is the musical, which turns out to be an excellent crowd pleaser. It helps that four very talented actors – Hayden Milanes as Frankie, Nicolas Dromard as Tommy, Quinn VanAntwerp as songwriter Bobby Gaudio and Adam Zelasko as bass player Nick Massi – do some soaring renditions of those Four Seasons’ classics like “Sherry,” “Walk Like A Man,” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” The show’s creator, former Woody Allen screenwriter Marshall Brickman, clearly understood that creating a musical based around the Four Seasons’ very sublime catalog of major hits was a smart idea.
But he also has a considerable amount of fun retelling the Jersey boys’ story – and all the small calamities that happen along the way.
After all, at times it seems like “Jersey Boys” could be renamed “The Godfather Part IV,” considering how much involvement the band had with the Jersey mob, which often tossed “loans” to Tommy, either to help the band make their early recordings or later, after their success, to help him finance nice apartments for all his girlfriends.
Tommy, Frankie and Nick start out playing the local club circuit but, despite Frankie’s ethereal voice, flounder until neighborhood kid Joe Pesci — yes, that Joe Pesci, of “Raging Bull” and “Home Alone” fame – introduces them to young singer and songwriter Bob Gaudio, who had a hit at age 15 with “Who Wears Short Shorts” for the Royal Teens, but now, a couple of years later, considers himself a one-hit wonder. Gaudio auditions for the band, now known as the Four Lovers, and while Frankie thinks his songwriting talent is just what the band needs, Tommy is skeptical and worries that this hot-shot writer may want to exert too much control over the band – which is his territory. But at Frankie’s insistence, Gaudio is in, and he delivers the band three #1 hits in a row with “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like A Man.”
But despite the fame, problems persist – Frankie’s rocky marriage, Tommy’s growing debt, Nick’s longing to be back in the old neighborhood and not out on tour living in motel rooms with tiny bars of soap.
There are plenty of great comical moments along the way – Frankie nearly getting taken by con artists who fake a murder in his car, Bob losing his virginity to a sexy lady sent to visit him during their early tour by a grateful recording studio (do they still do that as a thank you note to hit artists?) and the band’s many memorable exchanges with Bob Crewe, the recording mogul who first discovers them, and who also happens to be a sharp tongued queen with a clever wit and passion for zodiac signs.
And besides, did you know the band got their name from … a bowling alley?
The lead performers and Barry Anderson’s very funny take as Bob Crewe are more than sufficient to hold interest, and there’s no question that “Jersey Boys” creates a genuine nostalgic buzz for those irresistible Four Season hits, and for the spirit of innocence in the early 1960s, before acid rock, the hippie movement and anti-war protests took over, and when a heart-felt love song could resonate so powerfully. This is a fast-paced, upbeat musical, but one that clearly pays tribute as much to this band as to the attitude and outlook in Jersey. And in a way, it’s also a tribute the American dream of finding great success in unlikely places.
Because if these kids could do it, “Jersey Boys” seems to note, the sky is the limit for any of us.
“Jersey Boys” is now playing at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre in Orlando. Shows are at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, and 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays through April 27. The Bob Carr is at 401 W. Livingston St. Tickets are $38.50-$150. For reservations, call 407-246-4262.
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