Friday, March 15, 2013

Before There Was Timberlake: Jersey Boys

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

My first introduction to The Four Seasons came from the 1979 Phillip Kaufman movie The Wanderers, centered on gangs in early 1960s Bronx, New York. I loved the movie, bought the soundtrack, and had it on regular rotation for years. Still, that didn't mean that come this week, I wasn't a tad confused about who the musical Jersey Boys was actually about. (For a moment, I was convinced it was about Dion and the Belmonts, since Dion performed the song "The Wanderer.")

No, Jersey Boys is about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the quartet that, indeed, hailed from New Jersey. The show has been running for years, and is making a return appearance at San Francisco's Curran Theater for a six-week run ending April 28th.

Jersey Boys is one of those "jukebox musicals," meaning it contains no original songs, but instead incorporates existing hits into the show. In this case, it's primarily songs by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, though there are also a few standards and time-period hits thrown in, including "My Boyfriend's Back" by the Angels, (but we'll get to that in a second).

The first act centers on origin story: Tommy DeVito (John Gardiner) has a band with an ever-changing line-up (depending on who's doing time or not), and an ever-changing name, when he "discovers" Frankie Valli, (nee Francesco Castelluccio), (Nick Cosgrove), a teenager with the "voice of an angel." I'm not sure I'd call it the voice of an angel, but anyone who's heard the real Frankie Valli knows his falsetto is nothing if not distinctive. (And if you think it's dated, know that every high-pitched vocal coming from Justin Timberlake's mouth owes a tremendous debt to Valli.)

The band struggles with performance and songwriting (at one point hiring a songwriter who dons an ape mask while making the band perform "I Go Ape.") Eventually Joe Pesci hooks them up with songwriter Bob Gaudio, who at age fifteen was a one-hit-wonder with the song "Short Shorts." (Gaudio was played by the excellent understudy Tommaso Antico the night I saw the show.)

I have a feeling some may be stuck on the Joe Pesci part. Yes, it is THAT Joe Pesci, AKA Joey Fishes, and I will admit I had no idea he played such an integral (OK, any) part in the history of the Four Seasons. (Of course, some of this might be legend-creation, as Joe Pesci was also an original producer of the musical.)

Once the band takes on Bob Giorno, they flounder some more, relegated to providing back-up vocals to a series of artists, until Bob comes up with their first hit, "Sherry." The hits continue after that, with "Big Girls Don't Cry," and "Walk Like a Man."

When the band finds success, the story becomes a pretty familiar one. Fame; money; cheating and the break-up of marriages; and eventually, the inevitable band split. The only thing this rags-to-fame-to-riches story is missing is drug abuse. (Instead, it's heavy debts that lead to a fallout.)

I'm not entirely sure how much appeal the story may have to anyone completely unaware of the music of The Four Seasons. A woman sitting next to me had never heard any of the songs before (which seems impossible, but then again, I am old), and seemed pretty bored by it all.

But I think the show has an energy that's pretty hard to resist. After all, there's a good reason the Four Seasons were so popular: their songs are insanely catchy. While the first act drags a little bit--I kept waiting for them to get their big break already--there certainly isn't a shortage of applause-garnering songs.

But the show definitely earns its Boys title. While there are a few female roles in the play, they're at times frustratingly limited--and scantily clad--and the one big song they have, as The Angels singing "My Boyfriend's Back," is just plain weird, coming off like a pre-punk version that has none of the catchiness of the original. Still, when Lauren Decierdo is playing Vallie's first wife, Lorraine, she's a foul-mouthed firecracker, and a lot of fun.

Frankie Valli's is a hard voice to mimic. Nick Cosgrove does his best to belt it out in falsetto, but it's really not that Valli-like. To my ears, it was a little too strong with the vibrato, delving into Glen Yarbourough territory at times (or, as my companion pointed out, a tad "Lollipop Guild").

That said, he sells the damn thing. They all do. All four of the band members narrate parts of the story, and my personal fave was when the baritone bass-player Nick Massi finally gets his say. He's played by Michael Lomenda, and his performance is definitely the show's comedic highlight.

I'm not a huge fan of musicals, but ultimately, despite some needlessly maudlin moments, Jersey Boys won me over. But a warning to those who think it might be a good choice for a family night at the theater: this is a story about Italian guys from New Jersey. Joe Pesci is a character in it. If you think, because this is a musical, the language is going to be tame, you're out of your fucking mind.