Palazzo Hotel and Casino, Las Vegas
Jersey Boys, the story of the rise and fall and rise and fall and rise and fall of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, opened on Broadway to rave reviews in 2005. Honored with four 2006 Tonys, including Best Musical, it still continues to set weekly box office records as one of the top-grossing shows on the Great White Way. The production received many similar kudos during its quickly sold-out run here last season at the Ahmanson, including coming in fourth in the sweepstakes for El Lay’s Ten Best Musicals of 2007 in my annual TicketHolder Awards.
Now housed since May as a permanent attraction at the Palazzo, Las Vegas’ newest monstrously glitzy hotel, the snappy custom-built Jersey Boys Theatre created there specifically for this show—and profusely adorned from the lobby in with idiosyncratic 60s period influences and one-of-a-kind Four Seasons memorabilia on loan from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—is currently the only place west of the Mississippi to see this runaway hit and probably will be for some time to come.
Jersey Boys, featuring a surprisingly prolific number of the group’s numerous Top-40 smash hits, including “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Oh, What a Night” and many more, first and foremost has something going for it a lot of musicals don’t: a ballsy, crisply intelligent, non-gooey book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice which uncompromisingly tells the story of these four f-word spouting, jail time spending working-class lads from beautiful downtown Newark who beat the odds and stayed out of the can just long enough to become members of one of the most popular musical success stories of the last century.
Under Des McAnuff’s bold yet economical direction on Klara Zieglorova’s massive steel two-story industrial-style set that could house an international Stones concert tour, here perfectly adapted for permanent use at the Palazzo, the true wonder of Jersey Boys is that it 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 overdose which claimed the life of his daughter Francine.
Brickman and Elice shrewdly 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 huge Lichtenstein-like rear projections whimsically designed by Michael Clark (suitably tagged Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall) which quickly indicate passage into a new storyteller’s version of The Four Seasons’ rollercoaster ride of a success story. It’s a clever theatrical device also used to illustrate the group’s best known song titles as they incubate from tentative first scribble to international hit status, while the colorful barrage of images shares projection screen space with historically accurate performances featuring the current cast in living black-and-white recreating the Boys’ original performances on American Bandstand and Ed Sullivan.
The dysfunctional DeVito’s take on things is the first up and, with Erik Bates in the role, Jersey Boys is off to a fine start, his Sinatra-tough character telling the audience with feigned humility, “I don’ wanna seem ubiquitous, but we put Jersey on da map.” Nobody likes getting hissed at curtaincall, no matter how odious a character it is we may be playing, and Bates smoothly walks a fine line as loudmouthed minor street hood DeVito in an effort to make him less of a swaggering, ego-driven asshole, achieving a kind of underlying lost soul quality that makes Tommy’s brutish attitude—and the financial problems he created for the group—a bit more palatable.
Erich Bergen, who was such as standout at the Ahmanson as non-streetwise bandmember Bob Gaudio, the only suburban whitebread member of band and the last guy to join, has grown considerably in the last year playing this role. He is even more impressive now as the wide-eyed teenager Gaudio, who wrote “Who Wears Short Shorts” while in high school and became the inspired composer of almost all of the group’s great hits, including “Stay,” “Let’s Hang On,” “Bye, Bye, Baby,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” The less hoody Gaudio is the Boy with whom most of us, at least those of us who did not have to survive growing up on the mean streets of Jersey, can identify and Bergen makes that happen for us effortlessly. He’s a promising young musical theatre future star who’s comfortable as a dancer as well, deftly interpreting Sergio Trujillo’s perfectly period choreography without a hitch.
Jeff Leibow is 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. Leibow contributes a wonderfully unfussy turn to the otherwise often raucous proceedings, offering an understated counterpoint to the other three larger-than-life performances by doing Massi’s own loose-limbed, easy-does-it Dean Martin thing right alongside the more gregarious Rat Pack sensibilities of the other three bandmembers.
The Vegas Jersey Boys 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. Joyce Chittick 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 Salvatore 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”), Ken Krugman is on the money as sentimental mother-loving good ol’ neighborhood mobster Gyp DeCarlo, and Kristofer McNeeley does such a dead-on vocal impression of the Boys’ hang-round groupie Joe Pesci that it’s not hard to figure out who he’s playing even before the surprise Gaudio drops when identifying him to the audience.
Still, for everything Jersey Boys has going for it, including exceptional lighting, vibrant 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 in the wild emotional journey the singer was forced to endure as he rode his ever-fluctuating destiny-train to fame and fortune.
Not even the onstage recreation of Frankie Valli’s fingernails-on-the-blackboard falsetto could dissuade me from enjoying Rick Faugno’s impeccable depiction, even his easy swing into the highest of margarita-freeze notes. Although in the first act Fuugno had a little trouble replicating Valli’s unearthly ability to slide effortlessly into those ear-shattering higher ranges, any fluctuation in vocal performance here is forgiven. Doing this show nightly is clearly an amazing feat of vocal skill (Travis Cloer does the 10pm performances, surely for just that reason) and, by Act Two, Faugno unmistakably found his way, receiving a massive and lengthy ovation during the play after knocking out a show-stopping “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
As an actor, Faugno is riveting again as his character relives the horrendous news of young Francine Valli’s untimely death 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 Faugno was the actor chosen to take over the Tony-winning role in Vegas, 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.
Recently added, patrons who opt for the Absolut Best Seats in the House VIP Package receive a complimentary Absolut specialty cocktail and an oversized souvenir program before being ushered to super-seats in the front orchestra section through a private VIP hallway where they can marvel at the original Four Seasons album photos and other preserved mementos displayed there. VIP patrons “experience the drama of how a group of bluecollar boys from the wrong side of the tracks became one of the biggest American pop music sensations of all time,” they tell us, but hey: you could sit at the Wynn with binoculars and a headset and it would still be impossible not to enjoy this show.
“After two wonderful years on Broadway, in Chicago, San Francisco, around the country and most recently in London,” says the show’s producer Michael David, “we are delighted to open this brand new company in Las Vegas. We have every hope to make the new theatre in the recently opened Palazzo a Jersey Boys home for a long time to come. Vegas is part of The Four Seasons history and we are excited to bring our version of that true story to such a singular market.”
Singular market? Hell, Jersey Boys at the Palazzo is a match made in Vegas Heaven.
Jersey Boys plays indefinitely at the sparkling new Palazzo Hotel and Casino, 3325 Las Vegas Bl. South, Las Vegas; for tickets, call 866.641.SHOW or log on at www.PalazzoLasVegas.com.