Sunday, July 24, 2011

Out of Place With The Jersey Boys

A Solidly Entertaining Musical A Bit More Solidly Entertaining for Fans

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Once in a while, when I’m going to a show, I feel more like a cultural anthropologist than a theatre critic. That’s sort of how it felt going to see Jersey Boys this past Thursday. It was one of the biggest, most intense crowd energies I've ever felt at the Marcus Center. Personally, I didn't feel the excitement. The story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons adapted to a flashy, big-budget touring show has a very definite appeal for the older end of the baby boom generation. While there is undoubtedly a cross-generational contingent of Four Seasons fans, Valli and the group don’t quite have the more universal multi-generational appeal of contemporaries like . . . say . . . the Beach Boys.

 

They may not have sold as many albums as the Four Seasons, but the Beach Boys’ work is just a bit more acclaimed by music critics. (Hipster music snobs can get into an album like Pet Sounds without feeling like they compromise their credibility.) Personally, even though I've never really thought much about the Beach Boys, I recognize Good Vibrations and Kokomo better than anything Valli sang. By contrast, I’m more familiar with the Four Seasons from the snippets played incessantly on ‘80’s TV commercials for Time/Life compilation albums.

 

And so my relative unfamiliarity with the music was a stark contrast to what seemed to be just about everyone else in the audience. I can’t remember ever going to a touring musical that received that kind of enthusiastic response from the audience. The musical goes through a simple biography of the original band from conception to dissolution with the group’s greatest hits playing throughout. There were long, sustained applause before and after just about every song in the show. On one level, this is an opportunity to see a Four Seasons cover band in a really, really classy venue. The sound the ensemble generates is actually very, very close to the recordings. Steve Gouveia, who plays Nick Massi, doesn’t really have the kind of bass necessary to bring across a truly authentic sound, but Joseph Leo Bwarie emulates Valli’s signature falsetto brilliantly enough that the whole band feels authentic. And fans absolutely loved it, so who am I to quibble over details? 

 

 It should be pointed out that this weekend marks kind of an eclipse for  Valli fans, what with Valli being in town for Fest Italliana the same weekend Jersey Boys opened. I don’t doubt there were probably fans who had come to spend the weekend to catch both the man himself and the show about his genesis as a performer.

 

The fans certainly got what they had come for with the Jersey Boys. It’s a lovingly-crafted tribute to the band featuring a remarkably well-balanced ensemble. Those who probably make-up at least a couple thousand of the band’s 175 million records sold are more than appreciative of a musical that moves along quite briskly from the original band’s tenuous conception to the inevitable collapse.

 

Being someone who isn’t exactly a fan, I wasn’t exactly bored with the show. Any band that had been around for as long as the Four Seasons will have picked up the kinds of stories that could fill out a standard-length musical pretty well. And as unique as the Four Seasons were, their stories aren’t particularly spectacular stuff. Financial exploitation, gambling debts, mob ties and various individual arguments pretty much go with the territory for any band that’s as successful enough to sell 175 million albums.

 

 The fact that the story delivered here comes across as anything more than another cliché rise and fall rock and roll story has a lot to do with the dramatic competence of a really finely tuned central ensemble. Here Steve Gouveia makes up for his lack of bass depth with real dramatic depth. He’s got a stylish charm about him as possibly the most quiet member of the band—an interesting blend of dramatic and comedic talents that play well off the rest of the cast. Quinn VanAntwerp plays shrewd songwriter Bob Gaudio with sophistocation that serves the role well. Matt Bailey  makes for a stylishly seedy Tommy DeVito—the guy who had the vision to try to start a group like the Four Seasons in the first place. Joseph Leo Bwarie rounds out the cast as a nice guy who has a passion for music. And owing to the fact that the guy is still touring as heavily as he is decades after the events depicted here, it’s not hard to imagine him singing because of a love for music more than a love of money.  

 

Being as good as it is dramatically, the charisma of the ensemble poses problems for the musical. With so much time pursuing covers of the songs that made the band popular, there isn’t that much time spent on the area between the music. People who aren't big fans of the music might be a little less than impressed with the amount ofstory that comes across here between the songs. And as there isn’t as much substance there as there could be, it’s difficult to imagine the show providing a whole lot of insight for big fans of the Four Seasons beyond the thrill of the music itself. If the Four Seasons were any more legendary—if the band had the kind of background that is fussed over as much as legends of pop like Elivis or the Beatles, there really wouldn’t be much of anything here. Its lack of overexposure makes it kind of novel for fans. Fans of the group can feel some excitement at seeing competent actors portray the story of the band they love, even if they know more about it than becomes apparent in the musical.

 

The sound here is some of the best I’ve ever heard for a touring Browadway show. Not a single dropout, crackle or pop throughout the whole performance—possibly one of only two times I’d ever really seen that in a touring Broadway show. All too often the sound engineers on these touring shows don't really don't seem to care all that much about that kind of perfection. Sit too close and the microphones detract a little from the experience, though. It’s not as noticeable on the women, but all the guys appear to have strange growths coming out of their hairlines.

 

And speaking of ugly, usually one doesn’t have to worry about bad visuals for a touring Broadway show, but some idiot (I'm thinking that could be either Scenic Designer Klara Zieglerova or Production Designer Michael Clark) thought it might be a good idea to project big pop-art-like comic book-style images to help illustrate the story. It’s a harsh disconnect from the reality that the musical is trying to get across. And it’s awful stuff. It’s way too easy to do the ridiculously blown-up comic images in a BAD way. That’s why Roy Lichtenstein was such a genius with the Pop Art comic strip panels—it’s not what he did, it’s how well he did it that made it brilliant. Here it’s just ugly, ugly stuff that detracts from the gritty stylishness of the rest of the production. Come on guys, you can do better than that…Those skyline silhouettes of Jersey? THOSE are good. Cheap simulated Pop Art? Leave that to people who know what they’re doing with it . . .

 

Jersey Boys continues through August 14th at the Marcus Center. For ticket reservations, call 414-273-7206  

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