NOTE: This is a review of the Broadway production of Jersey Boys.
Sometimes a commercial artistic impulse and demography seem to merge in a way that guarantees success. I think we’ll be seeing an example of this phenomenon when the new musical Jersey Boys, about the lives and career of the pre-boomer pop group The Four Seasons, that just opened at the newly-named August Wilson Theater (formerly the Virginia) becomes the smash hit it deserves to be.
In recent years, there have been a string of middlebrow musicals with scores composed entirely of well-known pop songs. Some, like Mamma Mia, have been worldwide megahits. Others like All Shook Up and Lennon have been bombs. I expect Jersey Boys to fall into the former category, though perhaps not on a worldwide basis because of its distinctly New York area feel.
Set to dozens of classic rock tunes by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, the new show is a better product than Mamma Mia, which has the great ABBA songs, but a puerile made-up story. For Jersey Boys, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice have fashioned a touching bittersweet book from the real life stories of Frankie Valli (nee Castelluchio), Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio, four guys from the ‘hood who became the original members of The Four Seasons.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that their tales include key elements of The Godfather and The Sopranos, like jail, loan sharks, drugs, casual sex and ODs or that it is all rooted in the Garden State in the 1950s, a period when many early baby boomers—now in their prime theater ticket-buying years—were young.
And then there’s the super-slick production developed by director Des McAnuff and his team at the La Jolla Playhouse in Southern California, where he is Artistic Director. From the opening scrim—a cyclone fence reminiscent of another megahit of the period (West Side Story), you know exactly where these guys came from. There is also the clever use of more contemporary tricks of the Broadway musical trade like projections of giant Roy Lichtentstein-like cartoons, old TV clips of Ed Sullivan and live video that adds to the you-are-there feel. So do the orchestrations which for the most part exactly duplicate the original song arrangements.
The cast hasn’t got any big names. Some of the leads are making their Broadway debuts. Many have been involved with the project since La Jolla. To a person, they are fine. Especially John Lloyd Young who has the piercing Valli falsetto down pat. Also Christian Hoff as the troubled but essential Tommy DeVito and Daniel Reicherd as the talented but super-arrogant Bob Gaudio.
I read an interview in which Brickman predicted a very long run for this show based on attendance by every citizen of New Jersey. Judging by the pre- and early boomer audience the night I saw it—which was rockin’ along and mouthing the lyrics from the very opening chords of “Oh What a Night”--they will be back more than once. It’s basically a nostalgic evening—but a thoroughly enjoyable one.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
"The real thrill, at least for those who want something more than recycled chart toppers and a story line poured from a can, is that Mr. Young (Frankie Valli) has crossed the line from exact impersonation into something more compelling."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"There's no point in beating around the bush - I had a great time."
Howard Kissel for New York Daily News
"It's a show still dynamically alive in music while, as a drama, it catches the very texture, almost the actual smell, of its time."
Clive Barnes for New York Post
"They'd better start digging more tunnels from New Jersey, because when word gets out on this thing, every Garden State wiseguy is going to be calling for a limo and adding to the traffic clog."
Chris Jones for Chicago Tribune
"Love classic rock 'n' roll? Enjoy juicy behind-the-scenes true stories? Then without a doubt - and especially for Baby Boomers - 'Jersey Boys' is a hot new Broadway show for you."
Michael Sommers for Star-Ledger
"The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice is a little long on narration, and you may find your eyes glazing over until the point, two-thirds of the way through the first act, when the boys break into television with an appearance on "American Bandstand." From that point on, though, you snap awake and happily ride the wave."
Jacques Le Sourd for Journal News
"For a new musical, Jersey Boys seems amazingly like a rerun."
Michael Feingold for Village Voice
"Flawed but unexpectedly winning homage to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons"
Elysa Gardner for USA Today
"Shows there still is theatrical life in mining pop hits from the past."
Michael Kuchwara for Associated Press
"Director Des McAnuff has delivered a fast-paced production that flows in cinematic fashion, thankfully avoiding the bombast that afflicts so many similarly themed musicals."
Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter