Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Oh, What A Night: 'Jersey Boys' Still In Perfect Harmony -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Jersey Boys
Bank of America Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 3, 2012

Jersey Boys, the jukebox musical that tells the story of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, opened on Broadway in the fall of 2005. It went on to win the Tony Award, is still running quite successfully in New York--last week it played to over 90% capacity--and proved its appeal stretched throughout another tri-state area when it ran in Chicago from October 2007 to January 2010.

I saw it twice during that long Chicago stay and liked it very much. More so even, odd as it may sound, than the band the show is about.

Not that I don't like the Four Seasons; they had a number of true pop gems that provide the intrinsic appeal of Jersey Boys, but I rarely opt to listen to them outside of the show.

I wonder in a way if that's part of the secret of satisfying jukebox musicals (i.e. those using existing songs, often of a singular artist). I've found Jersey Boys and Mamma Mia eminently enjoyable, well-beyond any pre-existing reverence for the Four Seasons or ABBA. But even if they hadn't flopped on Broadway, I don't think I'd want to see shows like Lennon and Ring of Fire for fear they'd undermine my vast affinity for John Lennon and Johnny Cash. And though other factors were involved besides just the music, it might surprise some--including myself--that just this year I've liked Fela! far more than Green Day's American Idiot.

Anyway, the Jersey Boys are back in town--at the Bank of America (née Shubert) Theatre, the same venue the show played previously. But with another show booked from June 12, this time faux-Frankie and friends presumably won't be sticking around for years on end. Still, even a 9-week run is pretty impressive, though it helps that Broadway in Chicago included the show in its subscriber package for the second time in five years.
Photo credit: Joan Marcus
But in being given the chance to once again see a superb touring production (with a different cast) of a superlative show for just $10--as part of my bargain Balcony Club subscription--I'm not complaining.

Especially given that just 3 years since the last time I saw it, I was struck by how fresh Jersey Boys felt.

Perhaps that says more about my eroding memory than the show itself, but this really is a first-rate piece of entertainment that holds up well to repeat engagements.

While I don't often think to play the many hits of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons--and honestly don't often think of them in the same vein as the Beatles, Stones, Who, Kinks, Creedence, Cream or even the Beach Boys, Supremes, Hollies, Mamas & Papas, etc., as a defining group of the '60s--Jersey Boys certainly serves to remind that this is an oversight on my part.

Although the songs don't come as much of a surprise (particularly on my third viewing), the opening strains of any of the mega-hits--"Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night)," "Big Man in Town," "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You," "Rag Doll" and "Who Loves You?" just to name a few--always bring an anticipatory smile of excitement.

But what makes Jersey Boys a wonderful musical and not just a collection of great songs is its truly masterful book crafted by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with direction by Des McAnuff.

I've always held this show in high regard--from hearing of its Broadway bow to rave reviews, to watching a production number on the Tony's, to seeing it in Chicago in 2007 and 2009--but there has also been something of an asterisk in my mind.

"Jersey Boys is great...for a jukebox musical," I've thought, "but even though it's wonderfully entertaining, because of the ready-made songs, it's not a work of artistic brilliance on par with The Producers, Avenue Q, Hairspray or Wicked" to name a few shows that topped my list of Favorite Musicals of the '00s, where I bestowed this one with Honorable Mention.

I still wouldn't leapfrog Jersey Boys to the top of that list, but it belongs in the Top 10 and I now realize that any mental asterisk is absurd. Especially after many lesser jukebox musicals have amplified that this is not only the best biographical rock musical yet created, but also works surprisingly well as a resonant piece of narrative theater.

Maybe, although specific comparisons fail me, the current Chicago cast is particularly stellar--Joseph Leo Bwarie is especially amazing as Frankie Valli, hitting the falsettos about as well as one could imagine--but I think the shortcomings of similar-type shows have helped me appreciate just how good the source material is here, well beyond the cascade of catchy songs.

I now more acutely recognize that in telling the story of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, Jersey Boys--like any good work of drama, whether fiction or non--tells a much more universal tale. Sure, just at face value, the biography of Valli, Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi would also serve a compelling Behind the Music episode, and the smart, funny script quite compellingly gives each of the four 'Seasons' their turn to narrate personal, shared and at times divisive recollections.

But even if one doesn't much care about this particular band hailing from Belleville, NJ, more than many other works of stage and screen I've seen, Jersey Boys emotionally engages as a story of friendship, of a time and place gone by, of struggle and triumph, of love, loyalty and loss, of the creative process and of much, much more.

If you've seen Jersey Boys before and liked it enough to see it again, the production and cast in Chicago is every bit as good as you'd hope (Preston Truman Boyd, John Gardiner and Michael Lomenda star alongside the aformentioned Bwarie).

And if you've never seen this show, but love well-written story-based Broadway musicals and/or the jukebox variety featuring glorious pop harmonies--like a friend who just saw it for the first time and is already planning a return visit with others--you won't want to miss it.

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