Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Jersey Boys

When the crowd bursts into thunderous applause at the conclusion of “Jersey Boys” at the Sacramento Community Theater, it is not the first time there has been such sustained applause throughout the evening. In fact the show is brought to a standstill by applause three times during the first act for blockbuster tunes.

Whether you were raised in the 1950s, the 1960s or the 1970s, it’s hard to think there would be people who would not love this musical retelling of the story of The Four Seasons.

The Four Seasons hasn’t had a hit song in years, but in its day, the group sold more than 100 million records and produced numerous hit songs ("Big Girls Don't Cry," "Who Loves You" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," to name a few).

Before the “British Invasion,” American popular music was dominated by two groups: The Beach Boys and The Four Seasons. Unlike the Beatles, the Four Seasons (Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi, Bob Gaudio and Franki Valli) came before paparazzi, and the group fell apart at the height of its popularity. Nobody cared about the background of a bunch of blue collar Jersey guys from the streets until book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice came along and realized there was plenty of drama in the story and director Des McAnuff, a longtime Four Seasons fan, gave the project the green light for development and opening at his La Jolla Playhouse in 2004.

After its move to New York, the show was nominated for eight Tony awards and won four and achieved such popularity that some predicted the show could run “for decades.”

Unlike many other “jukebox musicals” (shows with thin story lines built around the music of one particular artist, such as “Good Vibrations,” “Lennon” or “All Shook Up”), “Jersey Boys” is structured to present the music more or less chronologically and to tell the group’s story that way. Each of the four performers has his own version of how things happened and each has a turn narrating a section.

Devin May begins the narration as Tommy Devito, the tough guy, the organizer, the guy who made his living singing in clubs with his pals and masterminding some B&E’s (breaking and entering) on the side. Time spent in prison for petty crimes was as much a given as anything else. It was Devito who brought a young kid, Frankie Castelluccio into his circle and gave him a chance to sing with the group.

Christopher Kale Jones is simply wonderful as Frankie, who changed his last name to Valli. While Jones doesn’t exactly replicate the original, he’s oh so “all but.”

Bob Gaudio, the guy who wrote the music and whose friendship with Valli as well as their business partnership, based on a simple handshake, continues today is beautifully portrayed by Erich Bergen as a tall, rather shy guy, who really doesn’t want to be in the spotlight, but who just wants to write music. His affection for his pal, Frankie, is palpable, especially as he watches the success of Valli’s “come back song,” “Can’t take my eyes off of you.”

Rounding out the quartet is Steve Gouveia as Nick Massi, womanizer and never quite comfortable in a subordinate role, always talking about “getting his own group,” who left for reasons which are never revealed and who died in 2002.

John Altieri is Bob Crew, the astrology-loving producer-lyricist; Joseph Siravo is Gyp DeCarlo, the Mafia Don who takes a liking to Frankie; Courter Simmons does a great Joe Pesci impression.

Friendship is what drives the group and their success. They love each other even when they hate each other. They are a mass of contradictions – Valli didn’t speak to Devito, for example, after the latter hit on Valli’s girl, and yet he takes on Devito’s huge debt because that’s what friends do–they take care of each other.

The story turns dark in Act 2, as conflict plagues the group and one by one the original members leave. Four backup guys are found and it becomes “Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons,” as Valli steps into the spotlight.

McAnuff’s staging and the non-stop energy of the cast is infectious. The enormous set by Klara Zieglerova, a massive thing of metal catwalks, fences, curving staircases, and screens which move in and out for cartoon-like illustrations and video clips add to the “massive” feel of it all.

But in the end, it is the music and the relationship between the four which is what makes this show and gives it its irresistible appeal.

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