— (L-R) Kara Tremel, Alayna Gallo and Denise Payn.
Photo: Joan Marcus
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe
Queen Elizabeth Theatre
$60-$165 + sc at www.ticketmaster.ca
There’s a magical moment in Jersey Boys when everything comes together for the first time. The singing group The Four Lovers has been kicking around New Jersey for a couple of years, playing crappy bars and looking for a musical catalyst who can get them to the next level. A friend—in fact the young Joe Pesci—introduces them to 17 year old songwriter Bob Gaudio who starts playing his song “Cry for Me.” One by one the Lovers join him in counterpoint and harmonies: lead singer Frankie Valli, bass man Nick Massi, hot-headed group leader Tommy DeVito. The chemistry is perfect, the sound explosive. And the audience in the Queen Elizabeth Theatre explodes along with it.
This is the kind of moment you’d expect from one of the hottest Broadway musicals of the past decade, making its Vancouver debut via an excellent touring company from Toronto. It happens again when the boys, now renamed The Four Seasons, reel off the remarkable string of hits that made them, along with the Beach Boys, the best-selling American group of the Sixties: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Dawn,” “Rag Doll” and more.
Anyone who grew up in the era or has a parent who did will instantly recognize the distinctive sound, including Valli’s soaring falsetto lead (“Bi-ig girls, do-on’t cry-iy-iy”), the echoing male chorus (“They don’t cry”), and the strong mid-tempo drum beat marking all their best songs.
In some ways this is just another boomer nostalgia trip. But a few important things separate Jersey Boys from the mass of boomersploitation musicals. It treats the music seriously, has a strong story with well developed (male) characters, and is directed with almost perfect pace by Canadian Des McAnuff.
The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice tells a classic rags to riches tale of blue-collar high school dropouts from Noo Joyzey who did B&E’s and flirted with the Mob when they weren’t singing doo wop on the corner and dreaming of a better life. The Fifties material they sang—“Earth Angel,” “Sunday Kind of Love”—could easily have been sent up, as it often is in these kinds of shows. But here it gets the same respect the singers and their audiences gave it at the time. Ditto for The Four Seasons tunes themselves. Along with archival video from American Bandstand and Ed Sullivan, cartoon projections accompany the songs. But the performances themselves are never treated like cartoons.
The actors in this cast can really sing. Though Nick Cosgrove’s falsetto doesn’t sound anything like Frankie Valli’s (whose does?), Cosgrove sells the character and the songs. John Gardiner as Tommy, narrating the first part of the show, Preston Truman Boyd as Gaudio, narrating the rest of it, and Michael Lomenda as Nick all carve out distinctive characters. Gardiner has to work the hardest because tough-guy Tommy is closest to cliché. Lomenda’s deadpan Nick, probably the best-written of the four, is an audience favourite.
McAnuff drives the first act at a terrific clip. Things slow down considerably in overly long act two when, with their big hits behind them, the guys start quarreling and Frankie’s personal life goes sour. As compelling as the plot and characters might be, there’s a definite deflation when the story takes over from the music. And when Frankie goes solo, you really notice how important the group sound was to him.
Women get short shrift in this show. Only three are in the cast and the script gives them little to do, including a lame version of “My Boyfriend’s Back.” Kara Tremel does nice work as Frankie’s neglected alcoholic wife Mary. But it’s the boys who matter most to each other in this story. As The Four Seasons’ contemporary, James Brown, once sang, this is a man’s world.