Frankie Valli was the person John Lennon most wanted to meet on his first visit to the U.S. Lennon’s enthusiasm makes perfect sense, in light of the golden achievements director Des McAnuff presents throughout this La Jolla Playhouse world premiere. Valli, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and songwriter Bob Gaudio racked up more than $100 million in sales, due primarily to Valli’s heartfelt falsetto and Gaudio’s instantly singable melodies. Although many tunes showcased in this Broadway-aimed production don’t achieve maximum impact — due to frustratingly abrupt cutoffs — and the Marshall Brickman/Rick Elice book sometimes sets aside gritty realism for corny humor, “Jersey Boys” is consistently enjoyable, a fleshed-out biopic.
DeVito (Christian Hoff), who deftly dominates the first act, is shown to be as much hood as singer. Even though he discovers and encourages Valli (David Norona), DeVito can’t resist a jewelry heist that lands him in jail. Massi (J. Robert Spencer) also winds up in the joint, but the group survives their criminal proclivities, first as the Varietones, then the Romans, the Four Lovers and, finally, lifting the term from a nightclub lounge sign, the Four Seasons.
At the beginning, everybody is self-consciously cute rather than tough. The group’s metamorphosis, before becoming the Seasons, is overlong, since it travels through 14 songs before introducing “Sherry,” one of the hits the aud is hungering for.
A few jokes are unnecessarily gross, and the balance in general between music and drama feels uneasy until Bob Gaudio (Daniel Reichard) comes on the scene, revealing unexpected business savvy and defying DeVito’s arrogant, inept leadership. He composes “Sherry,” performed by the quartet with infectious, bubblegum brio, and delivers a funny Brickman/Elice bit explaining how he came across a winning title while watching an old John Payne/Rhonda Fleming Western in which Fleming told her tough co-star, “Big girls don’t cry.”
Once producer Bob Crewe (Peter Gregus) recognizes the group’s potential, they hit No. 1, and Crewe is ignominiously bumped to the background. This plot choice is astonishing, since Crewe was co-writer with Gaudio on many Four Seasons smashes, and his contribution is virtually ignored. Known as a charismatic and powerful hands-on producer, he does nothing more than stand in the booth while the group produces its own songs.
In an attempt to include just about every hit with a bullet the Seasons ever had, some of the best numbers are whittled down to a verse or two, denying them a chance to be showstoppers. When director McAnuff permits a song to play out, such as Norona’s emotional renditions of “My Eyes Adored You” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” the electricity is tremendous.
This power primarily emanates from the four principals. The women in Valli’s life (nagging wife Jennifer Naimo, discontented girlfriend Sarah Avery and rebellious daughter Marisa Echeverria) lack detail and dimension.
Fortunately, Norona’s Valli transcends the words of a record exec in the play: “Frankie’s OK, but he’s no Neil Sedaka.” Norona sings with high, piercing clarity, and his falsetto — which has its own sound but captures Valli’s style — is expertly used on “Dawn,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.” A versatile actor, who appeared to advantage on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” he moves Frankie from boyish naivete to self-confidence, demonstrating a powerful display of loyalty when he decides to pay off DeVito’s debts in spite of deep-seated resentment against the man who made a secret pitch for his girlfriend.
Reichard gets inside the skin of a rock songwriter, enabling us to understand the drive and vision that make a musician succeed. He sings with winning verve on “December, 1963 (What a Night)” and “Stay,” and it’s easy to feel, through his portrayal, that we’re getting to know the real Gaudio.
As Nick Massi, who self-deprecatingly defines himself as the “Ringo” of the band and quits because he feels unimportant, Spencer has a direct, honest presence. Relatively passive all along, he unleashes raw, riveting fury at DeVito, denouncing him, in the show’s strongest confrontation, as an inconsiderate, obnoxious slob and double-crossing colleague. Spencer also realistically represents thousands of rock ‘n’ roll casualties who don’t find satisfaction in drugs, women and international popularity.
Sergio Trujillo’s choreography enhances the numbers, and Ron Melrose (music director-conductor, as well as piano/synthesizer player) guides a suitably gutsy band. Projection designer Michael Clark supplies the pop art images that evoke four seasons to represent key periods of the performers’ lives — vividly unveiling a hopeful spring, chartbusting summer, conflicted fall and shattered winter.
The last scene, centering on the group’s induction into the Rock & Rock Hall of Fame, is a well-written and directed summation of performer egocentricity, as each of the four stresses the significance of his contributions with Rashomon hindsight and Gaudio says, with teasing truthfulness, “None of this could have happened without me.”