I have had enough of Jersey boys–from the serious discussions about Gucci belts between my brother and father at Christmastime to my kindergarten love, an Italian-Irish Catholic boy, who had a bagel named after him at our local deli, this New Jersey local can’t seem to get away. So when I sat down to see Jersey Boys at the Orpheum Theater last weekend, I thought, could I handle more?
But hardly five minutes into the show, Tommy Devito (Matthew Dailey) reveals where the Four Seasons started–Belleville, New Jersey, which is also the birthplace of my mother. I grinned at this slice of home and joined in the few shouts of excitement scattered from the audience, the first time I’d ever done such a thing while watching professional theater. That atmosphere, which started so early on the show and continued right until the end, is what makes Jersey Boys special. People are into it in a unique way. Few other musicals can handle occasional but audible audience commentary and singing along, but such traditionally obnoxious behavior works as the audience is unconsciously cast as the die-hard fans that propel the Four Seasons through their successes.
For some theater critics and fans, the light-hearted, biopic qualities of Jersey Boys might discredit its validity as high-level theater, which is why the production must excel in other elements. Fortunately, this national tour does. The four leads, Tommy Devito (Matthew Dailey), Frankie Valli (Aaron De Jesus), Nick Massi (Keith Hines), and Bob Gaudio (Drew Seeley), are excellent. They are equal parts loveable and irritating, thanks in part to the way they each narrate a quarter of the show from their perspective. As Tommy says at the start of the show, “you ask four guys, you get four different versions.” The fact that we get to see each version adds depth to the show that is necessary to prevent it from simply being a musical theater Four Seasons cover band.
Jersey Boys covers a lot of time, material, and points of view. The pace is fast and fun, but borders on skating on the surface of the stories that define these men’s careers. However, the characterization by Dailey, De Jesus, Hines, and Seeley keep the performance grounded and believable. De Jesus’ voice and stature is uncannily Valli. I imagine that the decision to cast him was almost instantaneous, unless there is an underground community of Frankie Valli doubles I don’t know about. Embodying the physical and vocal qualities of Valli is the first level of De Jesus’ talent, but he convincingly undergoes the biggest variation and growth of character throughout the show. De Jesus handles Valli’s growing up into fame, dissolution of his marriage, ascension to group leader and steadfast loyalty to Tommy, and daughter’s death with depth and honesty, regardless of whether Valli is the narrator figure at each point. From an acting perspective, this is an impressive feat of all four men–to show development while they are not narrating the segment while also setting up their character so that their narration portion is believable in the context of the rest of the show.
But the other three men pull it off. Dailey captures the true Jersey boy. Even with a corny, though spot-on, accent, he succeeds as the show’s most ambivalent character. He is both the savior and the downfall of the group, but never fully falls into the trope of villain. Hines gives a side-splittingly hilarious portrayal of Nick. He speaks in an inexplicably deep, dry droll that is a brilliant humorous foil against Dailey’s swagger, Valli’s high-pitched earnestness, and Gaudio’s 1960’s radio host-like confidence. Gaudio is a force himself, as he made about 90% of the audience fall in love with him (and the other 10% fell in love when he loses his virginity during “Oh, What A Night”).
The best parts of the production, other than the talent of the core group, are the lighting and set. The main set of a catwalk flanked by two staircases remains stationary throughout the performance, so the lighting carries the changes in time, place, and mood. It is especially well done in the iconic staging of the four men under the streetlamp, the clinical white of the hospital where Frankie’s daughter Francine dies of a drug overdose, and backlighting the Four Seasons during concerts as they perform facing upstage and away from the audience. In addition to the lighting, cartoon projections above the catwalk help set the tone and add both humor and artistry to the show’s aesthetic. The projections are all appropriately pop-art in style, with the blonde girl shedding a single tear during “Big Girls Don’t Cry” being especially Lichtenstein-esque. Another creative use of the projection that adds physical depth to the stage mirrors the way that the Four Seasons give their concerts to the back wall. When they perform on American Bandstand, they never face the audience; instead, they perform into cameras on stage right and left, while the forward shots are projected in black and white between the catwalk. The audience gets to see the TV audience point of view in addition to the live perspective.
In some ways, it’s ok for Jersey Boys to remain a sort of theater fan-fiction that draws people who love the Four Seasons and their music, without being much more than that. But as someone unfamiliar with the musical and not a hardcore Four Seasons fan, I still enjoyed my extra dose of Jersey boy. I had fun, I was moved, and I left the theater smiling at the main takeaway of Jersey Boys. As Valli says during the endearing outtros, in which each member claims that their success was “all thanks to me,” the most important thing that brought the men together, brought them happiness, and saved their lives was their love for the music. Music saved them, and I couldn’t help but think about how many people in the audience had also been saved and fulfilled by music, maybe even by the Four Seasons’ music. With that kind of heartwarming, universal sentiment, I can certainly let a few more Jersey boys into my life.
Photos courtesy of Jeremy Daniel