Yes, they’ve been working their way back to you (and to the rest of us in greater Hartford) and they’ve never been better.
I’m talking about “Jersey Boys,” the Tony Award winning musical based on the remarkable career trajectory of Franki Valli and the Four Seasons that is making its second visit to the capitol city and is now playing at Hartford’s Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through November 6.
This touring production offers a strong, fluid staging by Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo, with outstanding performances–and memorable vocalizing–by the four young actors playing the world-renown quartet: Joseph Leo Bwarie as the diminutive dynamo with a remarkable vocal range, Franki, Preston Truman Boyd as the steady, talented composer Bob Gaudio, John Gardiner as the hyper, anxious and troubled Tommy DeVito and Michael Lomenda as the laconic Nick Massi.
All the great hits are here, richly sung by the cast and backed with top-notch arrangements, including “Walk Like a Man,” “My Eyes Adored You,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Sherry” “Stay,” “Bye Bye Babie,” “C’mon Marianne,” “Who Loves You,” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” to name just a few.
Outstanding and exciting as the music is, “Jersey Boys” is no mere jukebox musical. One of its frequently overlooked strengths is its book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (currently represented on Broadway by “The Addams Family.” They tell the story, warts and all, of how the group that would ultimately take the name “The Four Seasons” from a local bowling alley initially came together in suburban New Jersey in the late 1950’s following various failed attempts by DeVito and Valley (as Franki spelled his name at that point) to eke out a living in clubs and lounges.
It’s not until the group starts working with legendary producer Bob Crewe and adds the then 16-year old Bob Gaudio (who already had a hit with “Short Shorts”) to the group that they begin to take off. The musical showcases, of course, the famous handshake deal that Valli and Gaudio made in 1960, the Four Seasons Partnership, that remarkably lasts to this day. The book follows the gestation of many of the group’s hits as well as the turmoil in their personal lives, most particularly DeVito’s gambling problems and Valli’s difficulties with his wife and children, caused by his unrelenting touring schedule.
McAnuff and his book writers cleverly wrap the musical numbers into the overarching storyline in clever ways, some purely chronological, others inspired by incidents in the group members’ personal lives or within the group itself. The book stresses Valli’s commitment to his fellow members including how he had the Four Seasons Partnership assume DeVito’s gambling debts, out of gratitude for the mentoring he received from his colleague when he was just a naïve kid. There’s also Gaudio’s belief in Valli’s potential for a solo career, which he encourages by writing tender ballads such as “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” which become mega-hits.
But it’s the music that has also attracted audiences to “Jersey Boys, ” now the 27th longest running show in Broadway history and still going. Bwarie is an energetic performer who handles Valli’s lead vocals and trademark falsetto with memorable skill and ease. Boyd, Lomenda and Gardiner deliver quality harmonies with a deep, rich sound. McAnuff and Trujillo never repeat themselves in staging each song, so that every number remains fresh and original. And as the music keeps pouring off from the stage, a genuine thrill passes through an audience excited to reconnect with yet another familiar hit from their pop music past.
Boyd establishes Gaudio as the intellectual, even-tempered member of the group, while Gardiner provides contrast as the hot-tempered, more passionate DeVito. Lomenda is just right showing how Massi despite his talent constantly strove for the background.
Jonathan Hadley is quite entertaining as Crewe who not only serves as the Four Seasons’ producer but becomes Gaudio’s most-frequent writing partner, with both being responsible for most of the group’s longest lasting hits. Joe Siravo is funny and sturdy as Gyp DeCarlo, the wiseguy who has Valli’s back, while Courter Simmons does a great Joe Pesci in his younger days, grooming himself as a neighborhood fixer before setting his sights on acting. While there aren’t a great many memorable parts for women in this show, Kara Tremel makes an impression as Valli’s first wife Mary, who encourages him to end his last name with a vowel, and Denise Payne is memorable in her scenes as Valli’s much-loved but troubled daughter Francine.
This touring production is certainly up to the standards of the Broadway original. Klara Zieglerova’s multi-tiered set design supports the action of the book and accommodates several great moments, such as when Gaudio arranges for a surprise to accompany Valli on one of his first solo outings. Jess Goldstein has met the challenge of creating an array of unique and different costumes that help trace the progress of the Four Seasons from their 50’s roots through the 70’s and up to their entrance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
Howell Binkley’s lighting is equally as important as the staging to keep the musical numbers vital and interesting, and Steve Canyon Kennedy’s sound design captures the flavor and feel of our memories of the original versions. Michael Clark has created a virtually non-stop series of projections that in their sly way help to ground the show in specific times and trends, while often unobtrusively emphasizing certain components of the story. The 10 musicians in the band pack a powerful sound and are frequently found onstage in the midst of the action.
“Jersey Boys” is that rare compilation musical that accomplishes more than just parading out a progression of familiar and much-loved hits for the audience’s edification. Instead, it presents a very real, human story that allows us to glimpse some of the behind-the-scenes drama that shaped the group and its members. As a result, we get some idea of the excitement of creativity, the challenges of hit-making, the personal toll of constant touring, the sacrifices artists must sometimes make, and the vagaries of success and proximity of failure. But most of all, we get some terrific music, made all that more meaningful because of our greater understanding of the personal relationships, jealousies and promises out of which it grew.
“Jersey Boys” plays the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts through November 5. Tickets begin at $25 and can be purchased at the Bushnell Box Office, 166 Capitol Avenue in Hartford, online at the Bushnell website, or by calling (860) 987-5900.
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