It occurred to me as I settled into my seat at the Orpheum Theatre on Friday night that I’d managed to go my entire life without seeing a member of the species now known as the “jukebox musical”—the Broadway musical built on songs that have already achieved Top 40 success. So I don’t have much comparison for Jersey Boys, but the Tony-winning musical, first produced in 2005, seems to be a paradigmatic example of the genre. In swift Behind-the-Music fashion, the show runs us through the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, one of the most successful pop acts of the 1960s.
Except for the group’s deep catalog of hits (“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Rag Doll,” and “December, 1963 [Oh, What a Night]” all went to #1), the Four Seasons aren’t the most obvious candidates for the Broadway treatment. They don’t have the fanatic fan base of the Beatles or the Stones, they don’t have the drug-addled psychodrama of the Doors, and except for the widely remixed “December, 1963,” their songs (unlike those of, say, Neil Diamond or ABBA) have failed to transcend the oldies genre to appeal to younger generations. Indie bands today can be heard aping the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, and Ronnie Spector, but the alt Four Seasons have yet to emerge.
The Jersey Boys script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice makes a case for the Four Seasons as the working man’s pop heroes. Much is made of the musicians’ tireless work ethic and solidarity under pressure; the climactic conflict comes when one of the four lets the others down and forces the group into debt. Along the way, the show—narrated by the four Seasons in turn—passes the literal and metaphorical signposts of the genre: how the boys met, how they got their break, how their fame challenged their friendships and relationships. Even the Four Seasons’ dysfunction was pretty ordinary, by pop star standards—and the show acknowledges this. “Sell a hundred million records,” bassist Nick Massi (Steve Gouveia) says to the audience. “See how you handle it.”
It’s often observed that the advent of the Internet has sped changes in musical tastes and spurred the rapid rise and fall of buzzbands, but the music industry was already moving plenty quick in the early 60s—the era of two-minute singles and one-hit-wonders—and Jersey Boys moves with an almost flickering speed, props zooming in and popping up as one scene melts into another, and another, and then another. It’s the theatrical equivalent of a series of head-over-heels flips, and under the direction of Des McAnuff, Jersey Boys sticks all its landings. The fleet, lucid approach is a good fit for this story about a band who succeeded in a musical landscape where emotional expression had to be confined within strict parameters, delivered with enough slickness to let it slide down the throats of mainstream radio programmers.
“This cast are sure they’re even better than the original performers,” one theater insider told me, and from the evidence on stage, it seems like a plausible claim. Gouveia, Joseph Leo Bwarie (as Frankie Valli), Matt Bailey (as Tommy DeVito), and Quinn Vanantwerp (as Bob Gaudio) all deliver strong characterizations that keep each Season’s story distinct and compelling—well, at least adequately compelling. When it comes to plumbing the depths of the characters’ souls, Ingmar Bergman this is not.
And the music? That’s adequately compelling too. In forceful performances, the cast and musicians of Jersey Boys make a good case for the group’s early hits as classics of their type: the pop doo-wop that ruled the charts before the British Invasion. The music of Valli’s loungier later career—he was a force on the charts for over 15 years—sags, but the Friday night crowd responded well to the show’s cues to welcome “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” as a climactic summa.
Frankie Valli is now 76 years old. Babies conceived when “Sherry” was #1 will be eligible for AARP in a couple of years, and Valli’s been a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since Justin Bieber’s mother was younger than the “Baby” singer is now. Is he enjoying a well-earned retirement? Nope, Valli is still on the road, playing several gigs a month—still working his way back to you, whomever you might be.
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