Whether or not you’re old enough to have been a rabid fan of those legendary 60s pop music megastars The Four Seasons or if, like the gooey-eyed pubescent me of back then, you turned off “Sherry Baby” the minute it came on the radio or cancelled that order of fries when the jukebox at the diner coughed up “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” there’s not a chance in do-wop heaven any of us left standing could possibly not enjoy Jersey Boys, the multi-Tony winning hit musical that took New York by storm last season.
Not even the onstage recreation of Frankie Valli’s fingernails-on-the-blackboard falsetto could dissuade me from enjoying this show immensely and frankly, Christopher Kale Jones’ depiction of Valli’s swing into his highest margarita-freeze notes is such a feat of skill, one might listen to the original versions of Four Seasons songs with an all new sense of wonder after experiencing this show.
Jersey Boys, featuring an amazing number of the group’s numerous Top-40 smashes, first and foremost has something going for it a lot of musicals don’t: a ballsy, crisply intelligent and non-fluffy book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice which tells the story of these four working-class lads from beautiful downtown Newark who beat the odds and stayed out of jail just long enough to become members of one of the most enduringly popular musical success stories of the last century.
Under Des McAnuff’s bold yet surprisingly economical direction on Klara Zieglorova’s massive steel industrial-style set that could house an international Stones concert tour, Jersey Boys never once whitewashes the bad times, from founding “Season” Tommy DeVito’s raging personality problems and gambling debts to Valli’s miserably unsuccessful marriage and the tragic heroin death of his daughter.
Brickman and Elice cleverly conceived Jersey Boys in four parts, giving each castmember playing the Four Seasons a chance to tell that character’s own side of the same story. This narrative migration from one guy to the next is accompanied by colorful huge rear projections (whimsically designed by Michael Clark) tagged Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, indicating passage into a new storyteller’s version—a device also used to illustrate the occasional tour stop-off in a random local jail by showing a gavel-banging cartoon judge straight out of a 1955 Dick Tracy panel, as well as celebrating the group’s best known song titles as they incubate from tentative first scribble to international hit status performed on the stage of American Bandstand.
DeVito’s take on things is the first up and, with Deven May in the role, Jersey Boys is off to a fine start, his boy-Sopranos character telling the audience with feigned humility, “I don’ wanna seem ubiquitous, but we put Jersey on da map.” May will be remembered by LA audiences in the title role in the original Bat Boy the Musical at Actors Gang, a turn which later won him many honors in New York and internationally. Here he walks a fine line as loudmouthed minor street hood DeVito (especially with DeVito himself and both other surviving Four Seasons in the audience for the LA opening) in the effort to make him less of a swaggering, ego-driven asshole, achieving a kind of underlying sweet Chaplin-esque quality that makes DeVito’s brutish attitude—and the financial problems he created for the group—a bit more understandable.
Erich Bergen is excellent as non-streetwise bandmember Bob Gaudio, the only suburban whitebread member of The Four Seasons, the last guy to join, and eventually the inspired composer of almost all of their great hits (including “Stay,” “Let’s Hang On,” “Bye, Bye, Baby,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”). Bergen is a promising young musical theatre future star who’s more than a little comfortable as a dancer as well, deftly bettering the other three performers interpreting Sergio Trujillo’s perfectly period choreography, while Michael Ingersoll is endearing and arrestingly understated as the late Nick Massi, the quiet, often overlooked Season, the one who left fame behind when he came to the realization that “if there’s four guys and you’re Ringo,” there’s only so much glory one can attain.
The ensemble is uniformly dynamic, everyone onstage obviously cast because they’re also precision musicians able to pick up guitars, man the smoothly portable drum sets, and rock out as the storyline demands. Jackie Seiden is a particular standout as Valli’s first wife Mary (a character DeVito first warns Frankie will “eat you alive and send you home in an envelope”), John Altieri is hilarious as producer/lyricist Bob Crewe (described as a tad light-loafered by the Gaudio character, who admits, “This was the 60s and people thought, you know, Liberace was just theatrical”), and Joseph Siravo is on the money as sentimental mother-loving old neighborhood mobster Gyp DeCarlo.
Still, for everything Jersey Boys has going for it, including exceptional lighting, costume and sound design (by Howell Binkley, Jess Goldstein and Steve Canyon Kennedy, respectively), all would be in vain without a truly special performer to play Valli, both for the octave-breaking vocal calisthenics the role demands and, especially in the second act, the wild emotional ride the singer was stuck on as he rode his rollercoaster to fame and fortune.
Although in the first act Jones had a little trouble replicating Valli’s unearthly ability to slide effortlessly into those ear-shattering higher ranges, by Act Two he found his way, actually given a standing ovation during the play, the persnickety celeb-packed first night crowd leaping to its collective feet, at the lead of the real Mr. Gaudio himself, after Jones knocked out a show-stopping “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
As an actor, Jones is riveting again as his character relives the horrendous news of young Francine Valli’s untimely death, his hands shaking convulsively as the now-famous but still highly vulnerable singer is reached alone by phone backstage while out on tour. It was surely not by lottery that the writers decided to save Valli’s take on The Four Seasons’ tumultuous life story for last, and no mistake that Christopher Kale Jones was the actor chosen to take over the Tony-winning role on Jersey Boy’s first national tour, proving himself to be the quintessential performer able to get under the conflicted, often troubled, Jersey-proud skin of Frankie Valli—and make it sing.
Jersey Boys plays through Aug. 31 at the Ahmanson, located at 135 N. Grand Av. in the LA Music Center; for tickets, call 213.628.2772.