Dallas — In a 1978 interview on American Bandstand, host Dick Clark asked Frankie Valli why the Four Seasons were able to survive in the music industry for such a long time. Frankie responded “a lot of prayers and luck.” Clark was looking for something different, so he asked the question again, prodding Frankie with mention of the small gigs and struggles. Frankie listened patiently and said, “I think all that you say is true, but it takes an awful lot of luck.” That is one of the main reasons Jersey Boys remains wildly popular 10 years after its Broadway debut. Americans love a true story about beating the odds, about guys least likely to, getting lucky. This is one of those stories.
The national tour brings it to AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Winspear Opera House on the Broadway Series. Directed by Des McAnuff, is irresistibly enjoyable. Some audience members on opening night, Thursday, welcomed the second act by dancing at their seat.
Jersey Boys, book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, is the story of four guys from tough working class neighborhoods who formed one of the most successful rock and roll quartets of the 1960s and ’70s. With music by Bob Gaudio and lyrics by Bob Crewe, the musical opened on Broadway in the August Wilson Theatre, Nov. 6, 2005. It is now one of the longest running productions on Broadway and the West End in London. Jersey Boys won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Musical, and the 2009 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Musical. The show album won the Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album in 2007.
Three of the original Four Season singers are from New Jersey: Frankie Valli and Nick Massi/Newark, and Tommy DeVito/Belleville. Bob Gaudio was born in The Bronx borough of New York City. They are often described as being from the “wrong side of the tracks,” but of equal if not more importance to their story is not place, but the time period in which they grew up. It was time that shaped place and defined their station in life.
The characters are presented as young men and that is how the audience views them, unquestioningly. In reality, by the time these guys had their first hit in 1962, Tommy was 34, Nick was 32, and Frankie was 28. They were young but for Tommy and Nick, youth was slipping away. They had been very young children during the Great Depression and had come of age during World War II. Bob was the youngest at 20. So while neighborhood and familial ties certainly mattered, the 1930s and ’40s were tough times in America. The likelihood of four “kids” from Jersey and the Bronx breaking out from their close-knit Italian neighborhoods and becoming hugely successful performing and recording artists, was dismally low. By the time they solidified as a group, all had been slogging for 10-15 years trying to create a career in the music business. Within this context it is understandable that they would have been driven, and that they would have done almost anything to protect against a real or perceived threat to their success.
Brickman and Elice happened onto the story of The Four Seasons in a circuitous way. They had been looking for a project they could work on together. Someone that knew the Four Seasons contacted Brickman about the possibility of telling their story. Frankie, Bob and Tommy are still living. Nick died of cancer in 2000, four years before the world premiere of the musical. After researching the group and becoming fascinated with their individual stories, Brickman and Elice decided to meet with Frankie and Bob for lunch. As they listened to the singers talk about their early lives, the writers knew they had found their project.
Since the writers were hearing four different versions of the group’s history, they decided to tell it from four different perspectives: the seasons. This presented a perfect opportunity to the design team to mirror this Rashomon effect. (A Rashomon effect refers to situations where conflicting versions are told of the same story by different people.) Jersey Boys is segmented through each quartet member’s narration of what happened. Each was assigned a season, and the lighting design changed each season to reflect that particular mood.
The Spring segment is told through the point of view of Tommy DeVito (Matthew Dailey). The show opens with a contemporary pop rap-ish song that Tommy explains is a cover for “Oh, What a Night,” one of the Four Seasons’ biggest hits. Tommy takes credit for discovering Frankie and Bob. In the Summer narration, Bob Gaudio (Drew Seeley) bristles at the notion of being discovered by Tommy, arguing instead that he was already a successful songwriter with business acumen. Nick Massi (Keith Hines), Fall, sang bass and wrote most of the harmonies. Nick was the first to abandon fame and notoriety and separate from the group. Frankie Valli (Aaron De Jesus) is Winter. Frankie is loyal to a fault, particularly to Tommy. Frankie never really understands why Nick left the group. The story continues through the group’s induction into the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
Casting a show about real people that are still living is a little intimidating. Fans expect the sound to be as authentic as possible. In particular, the actor playing the role of Frankie Valli must sound like Frankie Valli. No worries here. As De Jesus began to sing the familiar hits, there were sighs of both reminiscence and relief because he sounds very much like Frankie. The quartet harmonies are tight, yet the voices are distinct and individual. This is important because it is what strongly distinguished the Four Seasons from other groups of the same time period. Daily, Seeley, Hines and De Jesus are vocally convincing.
This story has a lot of moving parts across decades. Movement is constant with characters and musicians coming in and out of the frame, helping to establish time and place. All of this is facilitated on an intelligent set design that is neutral, modular and geometrically industrial. It is utilitarian in a gritty New Jersey/New York sort of way. There is a large proscenium arch with a high ramp across the stage accessible by a spiral staircase. This offers a transparency that makes possible the projections, transitions between backstage and onstage perspectives, and it simplifies scene changes. The pop art projections are referential, establishing time through their Lichtenstein-like style, and the Dick Tracy comic strip likenesses.
Standout numbers are “My Eyes Adored You,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “You’re Just Too Good to Be True.”
A not-so-small thing, the scene in which Frankie receives a phone call about the death of his daughter Francine, works well because De Jesus takes his time. The pauses, during which the character is listening to what the caller is saying, are long enough for the audience to imagine what is being said. He does not rush them and by making that choice, allows the tension to settle in, and provides a space for the audience to feel it and react. It is a nice acting moment, acknowledged and appreciated.
Moments like that are what make Jersey Boys stand out in the growing sea of jukebox musicals, with a real story of human struggle and triumph, intermingled with that remarkable music.