Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music by Bob Gaudio
Lyrics by Bob Crewe
Directed by Des MacAnuff
August Wilson Theatre /245 West 52nd Street / (212) 239-6200
Reviewed by David Spencer
It seems a shame to tar Jersey Boys with the name of "jukebox show," because it unfairly compares this thoroughly winning evening with ersatz musicals that failed precisely because they were ersatz; and also, frankly, because its stunning success at what it does will encourage more bullshit attempts to create shows around existing catalogs of pop music.
Like Jersey Boys, some of these jukeboxy things have been and-then-s/he/they/I-wrote/sang compilations that follow a career, but what distinguishes this look at "the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons" can be summed up in several things you can't fake, or brew up:
(1) Authenticity. In flavor, characterization and tone, the book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice captures the patois and the 'tude of its heroes and their background; and later, the feel of the pop music world. This isn't just "show biz bio"; this is a look at the creative process as it affects the gestation and development of a group, as surely as Sunday in the Park With George is a meticulous musicalization of pointilistic philosophy. Maybe it's so accurate a backstage portrait because its writers and director are themselves such backstage creatures; since they'd recognize false notes, none are permitted to sound.
(2) Structure. Again, the book: The authors have split the story itself into four seasons -- Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter -- and each section of the first person narrative is handed off to another member of the group. to continue the story from his perspective. The perspective is never enough to derail the story or confuse rooting interest, but just enough to shed new light on the developing tale, by focusing on a different angle. As we move from street tough pioneer Tommy De Vito (Chritian Hoff) to determined but soft-spoken new-sound songwriter Bob Gaudio (Daniel Reichard) to "forgotten man" Nick Massi (J. Robert Spencer) to, ultimately, Frankie Valli himself (John Lloyd Young), we go on a real journey, in which the songs are not just historical place markers, but really reflective of time-era--events in a forward-moving way.
(3) The songs themselves As much as Bacharach and the Beatles, The Four Seasons helped define and shape the pop music of their era, with a sound that continued to grow and pioneer, a blend of music and lyrics in which one seemed inextricably an outgrowth of the other, that worked not just as popular music but as the primal reflection of a generation's emotions.
We pause at element (3) because other "jukebox" shows have certainly had access to "the songs that shaped a nation," as it were, or defined a generation; look at last season's All Shook Up, fashioned around Presley songs, or this season's Lennon. Why should Jersey Boys be so much the exception? For the answer to that we go to:
(4) The creative team. Right people, right material, right gestalt, right time. This is no mercenary songbook show, it's a labor of real, palpable passion; and if the lives of the group onstage are rendered so full-bloodedly as to make us believe we're watching the real boys play out their story, it's only because the authors and director Des McAnuff (talk about a comeback!) are fired with the same roaring spirit, and channeling like crazy. And this spreads to the "secondary" creative team, including designers, choreographer, musical director, etc.
Finally we come to
(5) The cast. Their selection and their brilliance is a function of all the other factors working in tandem. Each one of the four guys mentioned and described above nails his character's layered humanity, paradoxically with deft, bold strokes -- and of course their musicality, and ability to reproduce the Four Seasons sound, is beyond reproach.
In short Jersey Boys is not a jukebox show. It's a magical show, about a magical sound, in a magical time. It transcends label, genre, box category of any kind. Just as Gypsy defines the backstage mother musical so thoroughly that none would dare even broach the subject again, Jersey Boys should, similarly, be the defining song catalog show. Nothing like it ever need be done again, because nothing will ever again do it so well. Be not fooled, you pretenders, the mold has been broken. It's a job for professionals. Don't try this at home.
My issuing that advisory won't stop anybody of course. It may even be more for you than for them. Once you’Äôve been to the well of greatness, life's too short for pale imitation ...