Ahmanson Theatre – Through August 31, 2007
Boy, was I wrong about this musical. Imagine my surprise when this cynic was as enthusiastic as the rest of the opening night audience on Sunday. The performers are extremely engaging, the production is subtle yet effective and the book is engrossing.
Like many of my era who were more smitten with the British Invasion than the indigenous white music of the US, I had always thought of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons as being pleasant but lightweight pop. I have recategorized their music, moving the songs from disposable ditties to worthy contributions to the American songbook.
The musical is broken down into four parts (or seasons, geddit?), allowing each band member to retell the story. The swaggering Tommy DeVito (played admirably by Deven May) opens, setting up the empathy we need for him later as his gambling debts nearly destroy the band. DeVito rumbles through a litany of band names, random gigs and shady antics to keep the band in business.
Throughout the show the songs are used not as dialogue among the characters, but are always presented as if the band is onstage before an audience. Nonetheless, the songs in the first act are presented essentially chronologically, and convincingly build to the hat trick crescendo of “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.”
The first act could have ended on that high point, but instead the storyline presses forward with the results of fame, fortune and touring: money, bad debts and freelancing away from wives.
The second act pulls together many threads, mostly around the tight bond of Italian-Americans making their way out of a blue-collar neighborhood. The partnership of musical genius Bob Gaudio and Valli provides the talent base for the band’s longevity, despite some permutations in the line-up. Gaudio is played with aplomb by the gangling Erich Bergen. The enigmatic Nick Massi, who left the band at its height, is played by Michael Ingersoll. The gem of the evening is Christopher Kale Jones as Frankie Valli. Replicating Valli’s incredible vocal range, Jones deserves each ovation.
Intriguing elements of the show include the role Joe Pesci played in the band’s history before becoming an actor, and the consistent drummer onstage during each song (reinforcing the concert-style presentation of the songs). The band’s 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is particularly well-crafted. Also effective is the subtle hand of director Des McAnuff. Known for his sterling work at La Jolla Playhouse and especially the staging of The Who’s Tommy, the mid-60’s cartoon panel graphics help frame the story of the boys from New Jersey.
The three surviving members of the Four Seasons and Pesci were brought onstage during the curtain call at the show’s opening night, and it was a full-circle sort of moment.
Valli is still touring (he plays the Kodak Theatre on July 21).