There’s a reaction from an audience member that was overheard at the end of Friday evening’s opening performance of Jersey Boys. “I never knew,” remarked a Phoenix Theatre Company patron. It’s safe to guess that the same thing was probably said by many as they filed out of the theatre on Friday night. They never knew, and why would they?
During the early sixties when the boys from Jersey rose to fame as The Four Seasons, press, magazines, and the media in general were not the same as they are today. Fans who grew up hearing a string of number one AM radio hits such as Sherry, Walk Like A Man, and Big Girls Don’t Cry saw the projection of four, clean-cut, teen idols, competing for the same market that the equally clean-cut, wholesome teen idols The Beach Boys were enjoying. The behind-the-scenes affairs painted an altogether different picture. Had the prison records of the boys who began as a threesome harmonizing under a street corner lamp become public, it’s doubtful that Sherry would have even cracked the Top 100, let alone become an international hit.
It was songwriter and keyboardist Bob Gaudio who first had the idea. Witnessing the surge in popularity of the jukebox musical, it was he who suggested developing a musical revolving around the hits. But unlike Mamma Mia! or All Shook Up where a fictional plot was written around the music, Gaudio wanted the show to be biographical; a musical history of The Four Seasons. Heaven knows, there was enough real-life conflict to be explored without the need for making things up.
The problems for writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice were twofold: what to put in and how to present it. The lineup changed considerably and too much information, including all the name changes, would only confuse. Even today, younger rock ‘n roll historians tend to mix Nick DeVito with Nick Massi. Plus, separate interviews with Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi, and Tommy DeVito confused matters even further. Each singer would contradict what the other had explained. It was when the writers talked with the expressively colorful Tommy DeVito – he told them to forget what the others might have said; he’ll tell the truth – that the show’s approach to how things happened suddenly clicked into place. Jersey Boys would be split into four sections, four seasons in two acts, with each member narrating each season from their own particular point-of-view. And it works wonderfully.
During the first season when fellow Jersey boy Joe Pesci (Eric Zaklukiewicz) introduces Tommy DeVito (Anthony Fortino) to an unknown singer/songwriter Bob Gaudio (James D. Gish), De Vito turns to the audience and confides, “Joe Pesci. Yeah. That Joe Pesci. Who Knew?” But in the next season when Gaudio takes over the narration, he tells the audience that no matter what DeVito has just said about him, he wasn’t unknown. He’d already had a hit when The Royal Teens recorded the ‘58 hit Short Shorts.
True to its neighborhood roots and its working-class Jersey location, the language is continually salty. F-bombs are lobbed like free handouts. But the language, its delivery, and the show’s streetwise sensibilities often make the dialog all the funnier. When a young Frankie Valli (Justin Albinder) takes local neighborhood girl Mary Delgado (Merissa Haddad) on a date to a pizza joint, he talks of how classy the place is. “Yeah. They don’t sell slices,” Delgado sardonically responds. “That’s how you can tell.”
Beginning curiously with a French hip-hop version of December, 1963 called Ces soirées-là, a European hit in 2000 by rapper Yannick, the fast-paced show immediately takes off on a virtually breathless account of the rag doll-to-riches-and-back-to-rags-again story. As DeVito narrates, the only way to escape the neighborhood was either by joining the army, getting mobbed, or getting famous. It’s when a young Francesco Castelluccio sings in a club that DeVito sees his ticket out of there.
It’s true that the boys, who were previously called The Four Lovers, hit upon calling themselves The Four Seasons after seeing a flickering neon sign of a Jersey cocktail lounge. “I love the new name,” declares flamboyantly gay record producer Bob Crewe (Terry Gadaire) adding, “So did Vivaldi.” But while the show gives the impression that from there things really took off, in reality, it was different. After a flop single called Bermuda, the band renamed themselves The Four Lovers and went back to clubs and knocking on doors. It was some time much later when writer Gaudio came up with Sherry. After securing a spot on TV’s American Bandstand and seeing how audiences responded to the song and their special sound, the band returned to being The Four Seasons. But knowing this only adds as an example as to how well writers Brickman and Elice have condensed the book without compromising the overall arc of the story. In the way that a program director’s forward motion music sweep on an FM top 40 radio is designed, the show never looks back. Once The Four Seasons adopt the new name, as far as the show’s concerned, they’re off and running.
Rarely off-stage, director Raben’s excellent cast have barely a moment to catch their breath as they pass through what has to be an ever-revolving door, exiting as one character then re-entering moments later as another. While the energy of the men alone deserves applause – Matt Zimmerer is particularly effective as mob boss Gyp DeCarlo – special mention has to go to the three ladies of the ensemble. Between them, Caelan Creaser, Lynzee Foreman, and Merissa Haddad play not only Francine Valli, Lorraine, and Mary Delgado respectively but every other female character throughout the production, often exiting and returning with a new costume, a new wig, and a new Jersey accent within seconds. They must rank as the hardest working women currently appearing on any valley stage at the moment. But it’s the four boys that will ultimately draw your focus.
Fortino’s Tommy DeVito is a force to be reckoned with. DeVito’s real-life personality may have been toxic to the fortunes of the band, but the actor’s non-stop energy is so much fun to observe, he makes the lead guitarist from Belleville almost likable. James D. Gish, who scored a big success in the theatre’s recent production of West Side Story, is both an outstanding actor and singer. His Cry For Me, which acts as an audition piece to secure a place in the boy’s band, brings the house down. Tommy McDowell’s strength as Nick is not so much in the singing, it’s during a scene where he breaks into an epic rant about having to share hotel rooms while on the road with DeVito. His raving monologue where he describes DeVito’s bathroom habits, including dirty underwear and wet towels, is exceptionally funny. It stopped the show and resulted with an opening night audience bursting into applause.
The most difficult role, for obvious reasons, is playing the singer whose three-octave range and falsetto became the hallmark of The Four Seasons. Frankie Valli’s sound is what made him unique. He was truly one of a kind, which makes the task for whoever is going to play him all the more difficult. Justin Albinder’s voice doesn’t necessarily sound like Valli but he hits those notes and recreates the overall spirit of what Valli was all about. With Albinder we couldn’t possibly ask for anything more. And his rendition of Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You, complete with music director Alan Ruch’s brass backup, is exactly what you want it to be – outstanding.
As directed by Larry Raben, The Phoenix Theatre Company’s high-energy, slick, and overall exhilarating new production of the Broadway hit jukebox musical serves as a perfect reminder where and why the Hollywood 2014 movie version went wrong. Director Clint Eastwood made the music secondary to the story. Until Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You was performed, almost no song in the film was sung in its entirety, and Eyes doesn’t come into play until well into the story’s second half. Hollywood neglected to realize that it’s the music to Jersey Boys that was always its reason for being. The show isn’t just a streamlined biographical account of The Four Seasons, it’s a celebration of the songs. Even if you weren’t necessarily a fan, after leaving the theatre with December, 1963 and Who Loves You repeating in a loop in your head, audiences will have the strongest desire to beg, steal, or borrow a copy of The Four Seasons’ greatest hits CD from whoever has one, just to relive those key moments of the show once again.
The Phoenix Theatre Company’s production of Jersey Boys continues until March 10
Pictures Courtesy of Reg Madison Photography