When I sat down to write this post I realized it’s been a few months since I blogged about a play (last time was my review of Cleveland Play House’s beautiful Legacy of Light). Thanks to a belated anniversary present from Scott, I’m remedying that situation today!
As I mentioned when I saw The Monkees’ Peter Tork in concert last year, I grew up a huge fan of American pop music from the 1950s and 60s. Instead of NKOTB and other contemporary pop groups, I was rocking out to Roy Orbison and Buddy Holly.
One of the bands I went crazy over was The Four Seasons. I’d love singing and dancing to Big Girls Don’t Cry, Dawn, and Oh What a Night. Even now, Rag Doll is one of my favorite wistful songs.
So when I saw that Jersey Boys – based on Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons – was coming back to PlayhouseSquare, Scott bought us a pair of tickets for our anniversary.
Separated into four acts – each named after a different season and narrated by a different member of the band, Jersey Boys tells the story of how four blue-collar kids from Jersey escaped Newark and became rock and roll legends.
Tough, fast-talking Tommy DeVito boasts how he discovered Frankie’s beautiful voice and got the group together.
Bob Gaudio, the brains behind a lot of the songs, shares the challenges along the road to stardom, what it was like once they ‘made it,’ and how blindsided they were by DeVito’s gambling and tax problems.
The understated Nick Massi reveals how dynamics in the group were going wrong long before everything came to a head and DeVito and him left.
And Frankie shows us how a partnership between him and Gaudio that started with a handshake helped the two weather the storm and find success again.
As with other jukebox musicals like Mamma Mia! and Movin’ Out, the score was a compilation album of Four Seasons songs – from their little-knowns to their greatest hits. Throughout, the actors portraying The Four Seasons are tasked with bringing these songs to life as if you’re watching the real bandmembers living them out.
A lot of this burden rests on the actor portraying Frankie Valli. Valli is known for having a powerful falsetto voice and if you’re going to play him on stage you can’t just have the look — you need the voice.
In the Cleveland tour two actors are playing Valli (I’m guessing because of the impact singing falsetto night after night can have on you): Joseph Leo Bwarie, who has toured as Valli in over 35 cities for nearly 4 years, and John Michael Dias, who played Valli in the original Chicago Company. Dias was playing Valli the night we saw it and with only one exception where you could hear his voice start to quiver and almost break, he hit the role just right. In addition to capturing Valli’s unique voice, he had the same youthful spark that Valli still has in his 70s.
But although the real Valli’s three-and-a-half-octave range often stole the spotlight, I found that all four of the ‘Seasons in Jersey Boys held their own. As we moved from act to act and heard each guy’s individual take on the band, I found myself drawn into that bandmember’s personal retelling.
With Matt Bailey’s slick portrayal of Tommy DeVito, there was no wonder Valli was so enamored with the wiseguy who took him under his wing. Quinn VanAntwerp, whose height is the first thing that struck me, balanced both the youthful innocence and shrewdness of Bob Gaudio. And Steve Gouveia, who is from the original Broadway cast, made the somewhat-obtuse Nick Massi, an insightful, endearing character. In the end, it was Gouveia’s surprisingly contemplative, honest insight in the third act that made his my favorite portrayal.
In addition to the actors, Jersey Boys’ storytelling and staging helped bring The Four Seasons to life. Unlike other jukebox musicals that are heavy on the music but light on everything else, I found that Jersey Boys’ story didn’t just have me sitting there impatiently waiting for the next song to start up. Instead, it pulled me into the story behind the songs and made me care about the characters’ personal triumphs and failures.
With the exception of a few distracting moments where the lighting bounced off of an actor’s guitar and blinded me for a second, some clever staging also helped engage me. In particular, I really liked two scenes very different in tone that were similarly staged.
The first — the classic scene immortalized on the Jersey Boys posters. The Four Seasons — at the top of their game — are playing to a packed house. Instead of performing to the theatre’s audience, their backs are to us, lit from upstage so that the audience sees the performance through the musicians’ perspective. Later on, during a devastatingly tragic time in Frankie Valli’s life, we again see the action from behind as a priest tries to comfort him. The despair and loneliness hit me even more when thinking about how it contrasted with the overwhelming success and camaraderie from earlier.
If the reaction from Tuesday evening’s packed house was any indication, I wasn’t the only one who loved Jersey Boys. Young and old, everyone I saw seemed riveted by how the production brought The Four Seasons to the stage.
Like the audiences who helped the original Broadway company win the 2006 Tony for Best Musical and the countless other tours and productions repeatedly find success, much of the PlayhouseSquare audience was clapping, cheering and swooning like it was Valli himself up there. And I’m sure that will continue until the Cleveland tour closes on July 17.
Fortunately, for those like me who can’t get enough of The Four Seasons by mid-July, the real Frankie Valli visits PlayhouseSquare on December 10th.
Just in time for a Christmas present – right, Scott?
Jersey Boys / PlayhouseSquare 411:
- Jersey Boys at PlayhouseSquare
- Frankie Valli at PlayhouseSquare
- PlayhouseSquare on Facebook