Jersey Boys more than lives up to the hype

So here's the situation: By the end of Act One of Jersey Boys, a veritable thunderclap that is currently rocking the Fox Theatre, the plot has covered a lot of turf. We've watched four teens from blue-collar New Jersey run the gauntlet of rejection as they strive to break away from their crime-ridden neighborhoods and make something of themselves as a vocal group. After borrowing the name of a local bowing alley, the Four Seasons, we've seen them finally hit it big with the doo-wop-inspired "Sherry." We've seen them become the most successful singing group in America. We've heard them perform Billboard hits like "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "Oh What a Night" and "My Eyes Adored You." During the intermission a viewer has the right to wonder: What story is left to tell? What songs are left to sing?

Well, fasten your seat belts and hold on to your hats. This high-powered saga of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is not long into Act Two before we realize that Act One, wildly satisfying though it was, is only a prelude. Jersey Boys doesn't even kick into its highest gears until Act Two, at which point the no-nonsense (but sharply funny) book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice takes charge, serving up some of the meatiest scenes in any musical since 1776.

It is always dicey when a writer tries to force a plot around pre-existing tunes. Crazy for You charms us with its cornucopia of Gershwin melodies, but the script is a strain. Nobody goes to the ABBA retro Mamma Mia! for the jokes. But in Jersey Boys the book is rock-solid. The dialogue sets up the songs; the songs in turn drive the narrative. Brickman and Elice never wrote a Broadway show before. They didn't know the rules of the road. Instead they've come up with something original, a story that is told — not four times — but with four narrators, the four members of the original group.

Atta Boy: Jersey Boys thrills the Fox.
Chris Bennion
Atta Boy: Jersey Boys thrills the Fox.

Details

Jersey Boys
Through May 18 at the Fox Theatre, 527 North Grand Boulevard.
Tickets are $28 to $130.
Call 314-534-1678 or visit www.fabulousfox.com.

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First we hear from Tommy DeVito (Erik Bates), who in addition to starting the group is also the reason for its breakup. Then we meet Bob Gaudio (the Huckleberry Finn-like Andrew Rannells), who wrote the music for most of the hit songs. After hearing Valli's amazing falsetto, Gaudio says, "After eight bars, I know I need to write for this voice." That kind of quiet fervor is at the core of this high-octane morality tale that pits avarice against passion. In Act Two the group's quiet member, Nick Massi (Steve Gouveia), finally opens up. The evening crescendos when it finally focuses on Valli (Christopher Kale Jones), who has spent his life "chasing the music."

Although Jersey Boys masquerades as a Broadway musical, it also exploits the mass hysteria of a rock & roll concert, emits the echoing sounds of a studio recording session and employs the spare, minimalist dialogue of a lean motion-picture script. (Some of the early scenes, as the characters and their environment are introduced, might be a little too skeletal; be patient, everything and everyone will fall into place soon enough.) By mixing stage, film and concert together, Jersey Boys serves up a hybrid that is refreshingly original. Some musicals pretend to pay tribute to decades past. Grease, for instance, bills itself as a comic send-up of the 1950s; The Wedding Singer has the chutzpah to suggest that the 1980s are already worth romanticizing. Jersey Boys is mostly set in the 1960s (The Four Seasons exploded onto the scene with "Sherry" in 1962), but there is not a drop of sentiment all night long. This is a primer about ego and vanity, disillusionment and recrimination.

Best of all, it tells a story we do not know.

The Broadway musical theater has been crippled by its dependency on movies for subject matter — which in turn guarantees that the customer is already familiar with the story line before he ever enters the theater. By contrast, Jersey Boys delivers one surprise after another — not the least of which is that we find ourselves spellbound by four guys, at least three of whom are not notably appealing.

The production is as polished as a shiny gold record. Everything is geared to telling the story — or, in this case, four stories. The lighting, the visual effects, the video projections. (Hey, there's Ed Sullivan, that guy from Bye Bye Birdie, up on the screen.) The thoughtfully effective costumes grow ever more somber as the evening darkens. Director Des McAnuff, while keeping most of the action hurtling along at a fever pitch, is not afraid to slow things down and let the actors act — which is something else we don't see much of in today's musicals. But it's a smart move, because the cast is sensational. Technology makes Jersey Boys an exhilarating experience; these four actors make that experience human and deeply moving.

 
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