John Lloyd Young
The musical currently doesn’t know how to express itself because it doesn’t know what it wants to express—except profit. In pursuit of the golden egg, producers are turning more often to jukebox musicals, in which a jerry-built plot is constructed around a popular songwriter’s catalogue to create, in other words, a concert with conflict. It’s not an easy thing to do well, and recent shows focussing on the work of John Lennon, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys, and Burt Bacharach and Hal David have all fizzled. However, the latest entry in the jukebox sweepstakes, “Jersey Boys,” which tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (at the August Wilson, under the rollicking direction of Des McAnuff), looks to be a winner.
The splendid actors here—Christian Hoff, J. Robert Spencer, Daniel Reichard, and, especially, John Lloyd Young, as Valli—take turns narrating the group’s rise from lower-class Jersey doo-woppers to Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, and they’re as tight musically as they are persuasive dramatically. Their falsetto harmonies wash over the audience for two and half hours, as they work through an exhausting slew of hit songs. This is direct, pedal-to-the-metal stuff, without nuance, irony, or wit—the sound, as the show insists, of the working people. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice have written a clever book, which should become the template for this kind of musical excavation; it sets up the songs with well-judged humor and the elegant strokes of observation that the Four Seasons’ repertoire lacks. At one point, during Valli’s first date with Mary (Jennifer Naimo), the baleboste who becomes his first wife, she asks why he spells his invented Italian surname with a “y” and not an “i.” “ ‘Y’ is such a bullshit letter,” she says. “It doesn’t know what it is. Is it a vowel? Is it a consonant?” “Jersey Boys” knows exactly what it is: a money tree. The audience is tickled to death, but, given enough of these ersatz events, Broadway musical theatre may be, too.
Wow. It doesn’t get much better than this; rave reviews from Ben Brantley of the Times and now John Lahr. They’re the toughest in town.
Update: Speaking of tough critics, what about John Simon? He could close a show with a sneer. Well, here’s his take on the show.
“Jersey Boys,” at the August Wilson Theatre, is quite simply the best jukebox or song-catalog musical so far. It rousingly recreates the catchy songs, convoluted lives and roller-coaster careers of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Never having heard more of the group than their names, and lacking all interest in them and their music, I entered the theater a skeptic, but promptly turned believer.
That the four principals looked and sounded amazingly like the originals meant little to me; that their story and performances proved totally absorbing means 2 1/2 hours of sustained involvement.
The group’s adventures and misadventures, camaraderie and infighting, triumphs and gradual disintegration meld into a serendipitous mix of comedy and drama. The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice is resourceful in plotting and smart of dialogue, and Des McAnuff’s direction is unostentatiously devastating. The story is full of breakups; the way McAnuff stages the long exits of departing partners, lovers or friends — up some stairs and across a high bridge — gathers emotional impact from moving to overwhelming.
But most of “Jersey Boys” is madcap, infectious fun, abetted by fine supporting performances (notably Peter Gregus’s gay producer-lyric writer), efficient scenery by Klara Zieglerova, idiomatic costuming by Jess Goldstein, trenchant lighting by Howell Binkley, and disarmingly unpretentious choreography by Sergio Trujillo.
And, of course, the Four Seasons’ music and lyrics by the two Bobs, Gaudio and Crewe. The leads could not be better: Christian Hoff, Daniel Reichard and J. Robert Spencer are terrific. As Frankie, whether warbling in the upper register or downcast but ever-hopeful, John Lloyd Young is nothing short of sublime. [Emphasis added.]
I can’t wait to see the show. I’m going to try for sometime in January, provided it’s not sold out until 2008. Hmmm…do I know anyone in NYC who can get me in…?