The reason this ‘jukebox’ musical succeeds is its characters.
Wikipedia defines a jukebox musical as “a stage or film musical that uses previously released popular songs as its musical score.” But not all “jukebox” musicals are created equal. For every long-running smash like ABBA’s “Mamma Mia!” or Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out,” there are clunkers galore. “Lennon” (the words and music of John Lennon), “The Times They Are A-Changin’” (Bob Dylan) and “Good Vibrations” (the Beach Boys) flopped on the Great White Way, and Queen’s “We Will Rock You” didn’t perform appreciably better.
While “Mamma Mia!” remains the most lucrative jukebox musical to date — it’s been playing on Broadway for seven years and has spawned countless international road companies — “Jersey Boys” was the first of this oft-derided genre to actually receive enthusiastic reviews. Winner of the 2005 Tony award for Best Musical, it proved that a jukebox musical could also be great, even transcendent popular art. Inspired by — and featuring the music of — ’60s boy band extraordinaire Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, “Jersey Boys” is a j-box musical that Martin Scorsese could have directed. How’s that?
With its colorful cast of (mostly male) Italian-Americans, classic rock ’n’ roll score, a plethora of tough-talking wise guys, blissfully profane dialogue and even Scorsese talisman Joe Pesci as a major supporting character (no kidding), it would be a natural fit for the “Good Fellas”/”Raging Bull” director, or even David (“The Sopranos”) Chase. The audience at a performance of “Jersey Boys” is cheering not only for the cast’s pitch-perfect renderings of the Four Seasons’ songbook — which are pretty darn impressive in their own right — but for their own lost innocence. It’s exquisitely, profoundly moving and deeply nostalgic, even if you’re not part of the Baby Boomer generation. “Jersey Boys” effortlessly builds to the sort of galvanizing emotional crescendo that most Broadway musicals can only dream of.
Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s smartly written, swiftly paced book tells the classic rags-to-riches story of the meteoric rise— and cataclysmic fall — of the Four Seasons, one of the most beloved and iconic musical acts in American pop history. Group founder and inveterate troublemaker Tommy DeVito (Erik Bates) freely admits that the only available options for Jersey boys like him in the late 1950s/early ’60s were to join the Army, get mobbed up or become a star. Even though Tommy is on a first name basis with local hoodlums, he eventually opts for musical stardom as his ticket out of Belleville, New Jersey.
According to the script, it was Tommy who had the foresight to recruit killer falsetto Frankie Valli (Joseph Leo Bwarie) and songwriting genius Bob Gaudio (Andrew Rannells) to the group. It was also Tommy who triggered the eventual dissolution of the act through a combination of gambling debts, hubris and chronic mismanagement. All fourth member Nick DeVito (Miles Aubrey) — the self-described “Ringo” of the group — can do is stand by and watch as everything they’d worked so hard for goes down in flames.
If there’s a certain “...and this happened next” tone to the plot trajectory, that’s perhaps inevitable. The glue holding everything together, of course, is the fabulous Bob Gaudio songs (“Walk Like a Man,” “Sherry,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” et al.) whose lyrics tell the Four Seasons saga as well as any of the scripted dialogue. At times it’s a little hard figuring out who the real protagonist of the story is supposed to be. Tommy, Bob, Frankie and even Nick each take turns narrating the drama, providing their own personal slant on the group’s stormy history. Like everything else here — including the video projections of comic book panels that wittily and adroitly chart the progression of time — it shouldn’t work, yet it does.
The high energy production of “Jersey Boys,” currently playing at Cleveland’s Playhouse Square through July 20, is as tight as a Buddy Rich drum solo.
Director Des McAnuff does a bang-up job of unifying both past and present narrative threads, getting maximum use out of every inch of the intimate State Theater stage. Klara Zieglerova’s brilliant two-tiered scenic design is a wondrous amalgam of chrome and chainlink, and Howard Binkley’s impeccable lighting design ensures that we don’t miss a single performance beat or set detail.
Despite all of its technical wizardry and amazing performances (Aubrey and Rannells are the standouts in a truly remarkable cast), the ultimate reason “Jersey Boys” succeeds where most jukebox musicals have failed is that it provides the kind of richly nuanced, recognizably human characters at the center of some of the greatest songs the world has ever known. Their story might seem familiar from countless episodes of VH1’s “Behind the Music,” but there’s nothing clich or boilerplate about Frankie, Nick, Tommy or Bob. Through old-fashioned theatrical magic —and some great writing, direction and acting — they live, breathe and walk like men right before our eyes. And into our hearts forever.