They were just four guys from the wrong side of the tracks, but the tracks led them to international fame, gold records, millions of dollars and a permanent place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Their story, filled with mob connections, jail convictions and years of slugging it out in cheesy bowing alleys and sleazy lounges, had never been told before. That is until writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice with composers Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe decided it was high time to turn it into a musical. And the rest is Broadway history. With critical acclaim under its belt, a Grammy and a 2006 Tony Award for Best Musical, Jersey Boys, The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, is making the 50’s come alive again.
The Toronto production, once again directed by Des McAnuff who also directed the Toronto production in 2008, is one of those well-oiled shows that moves along so smoothly and effortlessly, you don’t have too much time to wonder how on three guys, two of them felons, ever made it to uptown New Jersey, let alone to the top ten on the Billboard charts for so many years. Their story is unique in the world of pop music, but so was their music. They were just stringing along, no money and out of work most of the time, changing the group’s name back and forth until guitarist Tommy DeVito, the roughest and toughest of the three, finally gave into singer Frankie Valli and pal Nick Massi about adding a fourth name to the trio, composer Bob Gaudio.
Gaudio was just a kid himself. When he was 15 years old he wrote a hit song called Who Wears Short Shorts, danced by some nubile chorines in the production who illustrate why the song was a teeny bopper favorite in the late 1950’s. By the age of 18 Gaudio thought he was a one-shot wonder. He was far from it. From the first time he heard Frankie Valli’s voice, a three-octave range that knocked him for a loop, he knew he had to write for him.
Jersey Boys doesn’t just concentrate on the upbeat times. The quartet which still knocked around for some time in local lounges and clubs, didn’t really get going until Gaudio’s trio of mega hits, Sherry, Walk Like a Man and Big Girl’s Don’t Cry put them on the music map. By then they were known as The Four Seasons.
Gaudio, who was a good kid with a music background and not from the wrong side of the tracks in Jersey, still fell into the good times as easily as the others. Booze, late night hotel parties with nameless willing women (Oh, What a Night
Gaudio in his song,
and it was an understatement), Vallie’s domestic problems with his hard-edged wife, Lorraine (Jessica Wockenfuss
) and Tommy DeVito’s ongoing debts to the mob, took its toll. Valli’s marriage broke up and years later his estranged daughter with whom he had finally formed a latent friendship, died from a drug overdose.
Though Frankie Valli was the one whose high notes were the ones that gave a unique sound to the close harmony of the quartet – Jonny Wexler is perfect as the kid from Jersey who started out naïve and ended up a workaholic who was never able to sustain a relationship. Nearly everyone in the group had an ego as big as New Jersey. Corey Greenan’s group honcho Tommy DeVito, was a tough guy with a modicum of talent whose mob connections were legendary and whose gambling habit almost scuttled the group until the mob exiled him to Las Vegas and Frankie Valli willingly took over the debts, an affirmation of the close ties the Jersey Boys had to each other.
Gaudio was as talented as he was good looking, clean cut and personable. Eric Chambliss’ wide-eyed innocent abroad look as a youngster housed a sharp business sense that surfaced at the right time. When Valli’s star was fading many years later, Gaudio, by then a record producer, convinced him and everyone else to take a chance on a romantic number that was considered too “artistic” to be a hit. It was a huge success, and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” put Valli back on the charts big time.
It was Nick Massi who was always odd man out with the group, never confided in, never brought into business conversations, and in the end just walked away and back to the life and New Jersey, the place he loved. The litany of faults that he relates to mob boss Gyp de Carlo (Todd Dubail) about roommate Tommy DeVito almost sounds like a camp counselor’s grievances about one of the kids in the cabin, and its earnestness is one of the show’s funniest moments. It isn’t the most colorful role but Jonathan Cable gives Massi a strength that no one else had: the ability leave when it was time.
Jersey Boys is filled with all the hoopla bright lights and crescendos of a mega star pop group of the 1950’s, complemented by 33 musical numbers and Sergio Trujillo’s snappy choreography which is reminiscent of the time. It was the period of television’s June Taylor dancers and American Bandstand’s hot dance steps, but the impeccable choreography for the Four Seasons’ themselves during their musical numbers is a real scene stealer.
There are no grandiose sets though there are plenty of technical effects and microphones that appear as if by magic then disappear into the floor. Howard Binkley’s lighting design provides its own theatrical atmosphere while comic cartoon strips above the bridge are colorful and a clue to the primary emotions of the teenaged girls who read romance comics and were thrilled by groups like The Four Seasons.
The Four Seasons’ ups and downs weren’t so very different from other groups of the period wo worked tirelessly to get somewhere, then took a roller coaster ride to fame and fortune until the ride ended. What’s different is that Jersey Boys concentrates on the individuals themselves, not only their personalities but what made them tick as human beings. Together with the music it’s a winning combination.
The Jersey Boys plays at the Ed Mirvish Theatre until March 17, 2019. 244 Victoria St. Tickets 415-872-1212 or 1-800-461-3333.
Reviewed by Jeniva Berger