Jersey Boys returns to Boston with all the pizzazz it flaunted on its previous engagements. Crowds are flocking to it with good reason: the show’s feel-good, doo-wop jukebox tunes, written and initially performed by the Four Seasons, remain popular all these years later. These hits - written by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe (inducted members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) -- have seeped into the American consciousness. The music sounds just as fresh as it did in the 1960s when Frankie Valli’s falsetto voice, soaring above the harmonious back-up of his three fellow Seasons, made its impact felt on the radio and television. At its heart, "Jersey Boys" is really a story about the evolution of American popular music.
Flashy and spunky, this jukebox musical bio can be enjoyed on many levels. It’s a wonderful night of entertainment. The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice tells a compelling story, first by effectively re-creating a seedy era replete with mobsters and con men, and then positioning each member of the Four Seasons as a device to share the rags-to-riches story of how the group rose to stardom.
We learn that Frankie Valli, played by Nick Cosgrove, was initially on his way to become a hairdresser. Fate, in the persona of his pal Tommy DeVito, played by John Gardiner, interceded. There are scenes of close-harmonizing under the street lamps, and performing in bowling alleys and smoky New Jersey nightclubs (not unlike those that later gave Bruce Springsteen his start). The doo-wop hit, "Silhouettes," made popular in 1957 by The Rays, is sung. There are run-ins with the mobsters, part of the fabric of New Jersey, which bring to mind the HBO series "The Sopranos." Money is made, gambles are waged, money is lost, sometimes recklessly. There are wink-wink references to sex, how to find it, how to avoid entrapment. And there are the inevitable songs - and scenes that inspired them -- about heartbreak.
The story gets tedious when it tries to tell too much, for instance during the sections that show how the Four Season came together and were first known as the Four Lovers. Since most of the story moves at breakneck speed under the direction of Des McAnuff, these sections are noticeable for their weightiness. And while the songs often race along - the original recordings clocked in at around two minutes each - they often blur into one another. The exceptions are the big hits, "Sherry" and "Walk Like a Man," which had members of the audience singing along.
But the songs really succeed when they are broken down to show the creative process. This happens a couple times, when Frankie Valli teams up with Bob Gaudio, played by Miles Jacoby. Witnessing how the two men work together - with Gaudio plunks out chords on the piano and Valli tinkers with the vocals - shows how transparent their songwriting process was. Each man searches to find the song’s touch points. When the other members of the group finally join in, the audience is hearing not only the whole tune but also the sum of its parts.
The choreography by Sergio Trujillo is key to the show’s success. We expect each band member to swivel their hips and sashay in unison, and they do not disappoint. Nick Cosgrove performs with athletic prowess, including a scene where he does a split on stage that had some members of the audience audibly gasping. There are female dancers who make their Las Vegas showgirl entrances onstage wearing cheeky costumes, designed by Jess Goldstein, replete with sequins that cast glittery sparkles throughout the Colonial’s auditorium. And Klara Zieglerova’s design elements - replicas of cars, neon signs, furniture that moves onstage and off effortlessly, television screens portraying pop- art scenes of the era - all conspire to make the show an effective, if somewhat breathtaking, sensory overload.
The music and the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons is one of nostalgia. It describes an era before the internet. Where today we take for granted that we can download songs for pennies and then transfer them onto handheld electronic devices. During the 1960s single songs and albums were only released on vinyl discs. Teenagers flocked to dances held at school cafeterias. We listened to tunes that spoke about our lives on transistor radios. "Jersey Boys" is awash in images like this that recreate a bygone era, but it succeeds because it avoids pandering to mawkish sentimentality. It wasn’t better back then; it was just a bit more innocent. But within that innocence there were frictions, heartaches, betrayals, losses, and tragedies, all of which are depicted. "Jersey Boys" remains fresh and vital because it puts the era into perspective with honesty and a spirited razzle-dazzle worth seeking out.
Jersey Boys, presented by Broadway in Boston, is at the Citi Emerson Colonial Theatre, Boston, now through March 3, 2013. For ticket information visit their website www.broadwayinboston.com.