When was your last standing ovation? Probably the last time you visited a theater, so routine has that ritual become. But a standing ovation in the middle of the second act? Such is the massive appeal of “Jersey Boys,” the Tony-winning musical survey of the lives and careers of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, that a solo artist can bring an Ahmanson Theater crowd to its feet with his soulful delivery of one all-time fave, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” But of course aud isn’t cheering just the song or performer. It’s cheering its lost youth.
Unlike most catalog shows, “Jersey Boys” features a strong plot — as sagas go, the rise, hard times and ultimate triumph of a group of friends in common cause is tough to beat — and even more importantly, a parade of hit songs emblematic of a generation. Even those too young to have been of that generation respond to the forthright appeal to “Walk Like a Man,” “Stay,” or “Let’s Hang On (To What We’ve Got).” The unique combination of ingredients creates genuine show business magic, as the delirious audience is happy to go wherever “Jersey Boys” wants to take it.
Librettists Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice attempt, Vivaldi-like, to give equal weight to all four Seasons, allowing each in turn to offer his contrary take on events. But the deck is clearly stacked toward front man Valli (Christopher Kale Jones), the diminutive kid with the big falsetto whose passion for music, so the story goes, holds the troupe together through three decades of No. 1 hits and sellout personal appearances.
Central idea is that the Jersey in these boys was the principal factor in their success and enduring popularity: not just the neighborhood code of honor and loyalty that got them through debt issues, mob problems and personal crises, but also the distinctive working-class sound that maintains a 40-years-plus hold on the public’s affection in the face of ever-shifting musical tastes.
That unifying Jersey sensibility is ever-present, some might say overpresent, in the thick Sopranos accents, cheerfully dumb jokes and insults, and even pieces of set dressing that Klara Zieglerova inserts above and behind her two-tiered, catwalk-chainlink-and-chrome set. Meanwhile, video projections and witty Roy Lichtenstein-inspired pop art chart the progress of time. There’s potential for chaos there, but helmer Des McAnuff guides the story (and the spectator’s eye) with clarity and cool.
McAnuff also truncates songs and overlaps dialogue to give us only limited opportunities to applaud; a smart move, else we’d be clapped out long before the finale.
Honed over six months in the San Francisco engagement, the principals’ interpretations are far from carbon copies of the Gotham originals, but are equally valid and blend as harmoniously as their singing. Jones in particular — who resembles Bobby Darin or Dustin Hoffman much more than he does Valli — takes a grittier, less fresh-faced and innocent tack than Tony winner John Lloyd Young, though Jones’s falsetto may come even more naturally to him.
Deven May invests Tommy DeVito, the group’s founding wiseguy and principal troublemaker, with more urbanity and less outward vulnerability than did Christian Hoff (another Tony recipient) but packs the same sense of danger. Erich Bergen’s composing wunderkind Bob Gaudio, and Michael Ingersoll’s reluctant fourth man Nick Massi, try for more laughs than their Broadway counterparts and mostly get them. All four execute Sergio Trujillo’s dance moves in delightful period-specific unison.
After the principals, there’s slim pickin’s left for the rest of the cast. The men offer decent support in sketchy roles, with Courter Simmons briefly amusing as the young Joe Pesci and flamboyant producer-lyricist Bob Crewe (John Altieri) oddly restricted to bitchy one-liners behind a recording-studio window. But it’s the Jersey girls who really disappoint, their singing, dancing and acting skills inferior in every way to those of the guys.
Much of “Jersey Boys” is a Four Seasons concert, duly supported by Howell Binkley’s rock arena lighting and a sound system that overmikes the songs when they need it (and sometimes when they don’t). But it remains curiously intimate and even sweet, insisting we remember that these world-class entertainers were and are neighborhood buddies at heart. It’s telling that for all the show’s high-octane high-tech, the furniture and set pieces are brought in and removed by hand. Even the Jersey Boys themselves pitch in, subtly animating their underlying principle, “We’re all in this together.” Naive? Sure. But undeniably powerful.
On opening night, Jersey met “Jersey” as the real Valli, DeVito, Crewe and Pesci took to the stage to join in the final bow.