O.K, so the book is clunky, the backstory is emotionally skeletal and the structure sticks to a generic “VH1 Behind the Music” model, but glance around the newly rechristened August Wilson Theater during the songs in “Jersey Boys” at the middle-age women dancing in their seats while their husbands’ heads bop to the music and it’s clear something is connecting. Then go dive in among the leopard-print outfits and thick “Sopranos” accents in the lobby at intermission and it becomes even clearer. If this musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons can reach its core audience of baby boomers and partisan home-staters, it could become a sizable hit.
Call it what you will — bio tuner, jukebox musical, songbook show — “Jersey Boys” is unlikely to erase the critical and industry skepticism toward the compilation genre or to send backers scurrying to invest in the inevitable “Lucky Star: The Madonna Story.” But this agreeably modest show has a number of appealing factors on its side.
The underdog story of four blue-collar Italian boys from Jersey who become a chart-topping hit factory advocates all the right embraceable values for mainstream acceptance: family, friendship, loyalty and a grounded awareness of one’s roots. It celebrates the rise to stardom while providing down-to-earth, bittersweet acknowledgement of its casualties. But most of all, it showcases an energizing concert of toe-tapping pop classics, with a quartet of vocally accomplished charmers faithfully reproducing the original Four Seasons sound.
Premiered in a sell-out extended run at La Jolla Playhouse last fall and reaching Broadway with most of its original creative crew and cast intact (aside from a new Frankie), the show is written, in his first musical theater venture, by frequent Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman and veteran Broadway marketing man-turned-playwright Rick Elice.
Given that the narrative spreads its attentions among all four singers, only reining in the focus to Frankie in the second act, there’s a lot of exposition to trudge through before the hits start coming. Opening with “Ces Soirees-la,” a cheesy Eurotrash pop/rap cover from 2000 of “Oh What a Night” that hints at the enduring impact of the Four Seasons’ songs, the show backtracks to Belleville, N.J., in the late 1950s.
Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff) is a brash, wiseguy type who sings in local dives with his band and eyes angel-voiced Frankie Castellucio (John Lloyd Young) as his ticket to bigger things. The script gives no insight into how a red-blooded, 16-year-old Jersey boy from a neighborhood full of thugs developed and unselfconsciously exhibited his dulcet falsetto, but it does skim through seemingly every other advance and stumbling block during the Four Seasons’ formation and establishment phase. These include mob brushes; prison terms for Tommy and Nick Massi (J. Robert Spencer); name changes; disastrous tour attempts; and the search for a fourth member, which eventually yielded squeaky-clean ace songwriter Bob Gaudio (Daniel Reichard).
It’s not until well into the first act, when the band’s chemistry starts cooking with the one-two-three smash-hit punch of “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man,” that the show really begins to deliver.
Despite a tendency to truncate too many of the numbers with abrupt cutoffs, director Des McAnuff and music director Ron Melrose give dynamic treatment to these boomer generation classics, loosely stitched into the social context of the time. Young nails Valli’s swooning siren of a voice with confidence, while Reichard, Hoff and Spencer pump up the sound with muscular harmonies, essaying choreographer Sergio Trujillo’s sharp period performance moves like “American Bandstand” veterans, and sporting costumer Jess Goldstein’s equally sharp suits with style.
The warm ripple of recognition that pulses through the aud with the opening bars of the group’s best-known songs — “Dawn (Go Away),” “Let’s Hang On,” “Working My Way Back to You” and “Rag Doll” are among the numbers that score high on the response scale — is no less palpable than that of the Abba tunes in “Mamma Mia!” or the familiar Python sketches in “Spamalot.”
Unlike most jukebox musicals, however, “Jersey Boys” doesn’t artificially wedge the songs into the narrative but uses them mainly as performances or recording sessions that punctuate the group’s bio. The few exceptions to this approach are smoothly integrated, including “December, 1963 (Oh What a Night),” during which Bob loses his virginity, and “My Eyes Adored You,” Frankie’s melancholy farewell to his broken marriage to Mary Delgado (Jennifer Naimo).
But relationships outside the group are too thinly sketched to supply much of an emotional hook until a brief interlude late in the show when Frankie suffers a personal tragedy. The key figure of music producer Bob Crewe (Peter Gregus), who penned the lyrics to many Seasons hits, also remains peripheral.
Sitting heavily on the second act is a protracted and unpersuasive scene in which mob kingpins circle Tommy, whose gambling habit and big-spender antics have dug him deep into debt. Frankie commits to pay back the sum, shackling him to a grueling appearance schedule that continues after the band dissolves and he becomes the front man backed by a new crew. There are strong individual scenes of friction, such as Nick’s release of his bottled-up resentment toward Tommy’s undisciplined behavior or his self-effacing departure from a unit in which he feels his presence is of no consequence. But Brickman and Elice’s book wades through all the plot soup without mustering sufficient dramatic urgency.
The book is more satisfying in capping the group’s achievement and their individual outcomes in deftly written closing monologues delivered during their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. All four members slyly reveal their belief that they were central to the Four Seasons’ success, while their comments eloquently underscore the ways in which guys from near-identical backgrounds can either adapt to or shrink from the spotlight. Refreshingly relaxed, unpushy perfs from Young, Hoff, Reichard and Spencer create distinct characters and lend weight to these succinct codas.
Where the finale could use more work is in its basic mechanics. The rendition of 1975 hit “Who Loves You” is such a rousing closer it seems perverse not to let it play out. And while wanting to avoid copycatting the “Mamma Mia!” formula of built-in, keep-the-hits-coming encores might be understandable, the bows as they are leave the audience on its feet and wanting more.
McAnuff keeps the cast moving around designer Klara Zieglerova’s simple scaffold set and catwalk with enough agility to disguise the show’s somewhat underpopulated feel. Howell Binkley’s concert-style lighting and Michael Clark’s Roy Lichtenstein-inspired projections beef up the visuals, creating what would appear to be a readily transportable package with strong hinterland touring prospects.