Monday, July 28, 2008
Theater Review: Jersey Boys
Jersey Boys is going to smash box office records here at the Music Hall.
In the last 6-7 years I have observed and reviewed practically every single jukebox musical that has come down the Rialto. From the good ones that made you leave the theater with a smile on your face, to the ones that gave you reason to pluck out your eyes and run to the hills from its torture.
It takes a lot more than just the hit songs to make the jukebox musical work, it's the book. Ah yes, the book. You need to take existing, well-known songs and with a flourish of a magician's wand you need to somehow transform those hit singles into a character driven solo or a full company number that moves the story along, or gives a character its arc, moment, subtext, or purpose. It's like taking a square peg and shoving into a round hole. No matter how hard you push, shove, thrust, and hammer in -- sometimes it just won't fit. But when it does, it's met with resounding success. That is the case of Jersey Boys.
The journey for JB began at the La Jolla Playhouse, and then moved to Broadway, where it opened at the August Wilson Theater in November 2005. As of today it is still playing to sold out, packed houses.
At the 2006 Tony Awards, Jersey Boys would take home four awards, including Best Musical. They would take the top prize over The Color Purple, The Drowsy Chaperone and The Wedding Singer.
For those who don't know the story here's a quick recap: They have put on stage the lives and careers of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. From their humble beginnings singing under lampposts in Jersey, to their meteoric rise to fame in the music industry. But along the way we see the failures, ruined marriages, booze, ego, gambling, the mob, death, and even Joe Pesci thrown into the storyline. It all leads up to the night they were reunited on stage to be inducted into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame.
Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's book does a fantastic job of actually making the group's sensational pop hits weave beautifully into a cohesive, engrossing book. Several of the songs with their original lyrics become character driven with solid subtext and gives strength to their arc. Some excellent examples include "My Mother's Eyes"; "December 1963"; "My Eyes Adore You"; and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You".
However, at first, the book does sag a tiny bit at the beginning. The ideas of doing a past Four Seasons hit into a rap song, and several scenes after that seem lackluster and slightly lifeless. But once it kicks into gear, it becomes a hypnotic emotional ride you'll never want to get off.
One of the most original and unique elements in the book is how they did not do the songs in chronological order. They did not put the songs in the order in which they were released to the public. Instead the songs are put in relation to the story, its current emotions, or character development. Brickman & Elice did not feel nailed down to the way the songs became pop hits. Thus they fashioned a muscular book that gives the emotion organic realism.
Des McAnuff's direction and staging is, in a word, magnificent. I demand and insist that every director of musical theater buy a ticket to Jersey Boys to see how directing and staging musicals should look and feel like. Believe me, you will learn from this true master.
McAnuff keeps everything moving at delicious pace, keeping scenes moving along seamlessly. Everything quietly glides in and out, up and down, and all around. He only allows the dramatic, quiet moments to stop, open up organically, resulting in honest truth. The blocking and staging is sublime. Sight lines are never distracting, characters move with their emotions and subtext, & the picture windows are dazzling.
For example, in the second act when we see a death happen, the idea of having Valli and the priest with their backs towards the audience is a beautiful, haunting choice. Valli even begins to sing with his back towards us, but when he turns to the audience finally, with tears streaming in his eyes, that simple blocking becomes a powerful, kick-in-the-stomach moment.
Another magical staging example is the use of two drummers. Throughout the musical we observe lots of scene changes. We go from a swanky nightclub to the "Ed Sullivan Show" to "American Bandstand" in a split second. So while we are watching via the huge center video screen the boys singing on live TV, they are all facing looking stage left into the cameras (live on the screen!) with the drummer behind them. But when the staging changes to have the boys turn to face the audience, the drummer glides off and another drummer appears from upstage! Thus never disrupting the "picture windows", and keeping the magic going. I was honestly enthralled with McAnuff's direction.
Klara Zieglerova's scenic design is a contraption of metal skeleton that has circular metal stairs and catwalks. On the floor a myriad of set pieces quietly glide off and on. Coming down from the fly rails are a dazzling assortment of neon signs, with its centerpiece is a trio of video screen boxes that flash cool animation or graphics.
Howell Binkley's lighting design is flawless. The stage is soaked in gorgeous hues from an array of colors. My personal favorite was the closing of Act One, which is when the boys are performing a concert in England. They are far upstage center, with their backs toward us. Two massive walls of light beam out like an actual concert, but then we see literally hundreds of "cameras" flash, it is a jaw-dropping technical moment!
Jess Goldstein's costume design completes the trio of theatrical magic within the production values. Everything is period, clean, slick, and elegant -- it was a fashion runway show on the Music Hall stage. I half expected Heidi Klum, Michael Kors, and Nina Garcia from "Project Runway" to appear on stage and applaud Goldstein's exquisite fashions. From my seat I could see the amazing detail to many of the jackets, ties, and cocktail dresses. For example, the costumes that the Angels wore for their big number. They are in hues of purple, but encrusted with jewels, and on their hips were strings of crystals, and huge beaded bows in the back. Perfection, pure perfection.
The entire cast is outstanding, from the principals, right down to the ensemble. I particularly enjoyed seeing that even the ensemble had wonderful cameos in various roles or solos within the evening.
In the large company there is solid, superb work from such actors as Jonathan Hadley as the flamboyant record producer "Bob Crewe"; Buck Hujabre as mobster "Nick DeVito"; Jamie Karen as "Mary Delgado"; and Sarah Darling as "Lorraine".
Joseph Siravo portrays an array of characters, including mobster "Gyp DeCarlo", each were unique, fresh, and original. As "Gyp", he looked, talked, and acted like a true mobster. Fun side note is that I had the wonderful pleasure of having seen Mr. Siravo on Broadway in The Light in the Piazza.
Jersey Boys at 60th Tony Awards
Out of the four actors portraying the seasons, I felt a little sorry for Steve Gouveia. He portrays "Nick Massi", the bass voice of the group. It is his storyline that ends up the weakest within the book. He has no major solo whatsoever in the show, and in the first Act he practically has no lines or focus in any of the book scenes. He does have more book work in the second act, but again no major solo. Gouveia actually makes a reference as "Massi" on stage that he is the "Ringo" of the group. I fear he's right on that one.
Erik Bates layers "Tommy DeVito" with masculine authority and oozes Jersey attitude, right down to the arm tattoos and thick "bada bing" accent. Sauntering on stage with aggressive machismo, he embodies the role brilliantly. Bates commands the stage with riveting stage presence. I don't know if you can tell from the back of the Music Hall, but his facial expressions and demeanor is so intense, you truly feel Bates brooding subtext shine through. It's like watching a panther that is caged and is ready to rip anyone to ribbons to escape his confinement. Bates also has his comedic timing & delivery fit like a glove within his characterization. To cap off an already terrific performance, the actor has a gorgeous singing voice to boot.
Andrew Rannells portrays "Bob Gaudio", who composed all the block-busting pop tunes that made the boys from across Manhattan into superstars. Rannells is a tall, pretty boy actor who happens to provide the best comedic skills on stage within the company. He has that innate gift of taking simple lines and turning them into comic zingers that hit payola time after time. Rannells has a smile that needs no special effects; it would have melted the iceberg that took down the Titanic and turn it into a tiny ice cube. A soothing, robust baritone voice within this talented actor provides top notch vocal work within his solos. Another factor that makes him even more outstanding is his detail to both the dramatic scenes as well as the comedy. Watch his intensity in the arrest scene and the fallout of the band with the mobsters, he is riveting. Rannells is such a stand out that at times he actually out shines the other three actors portraying da boys from Jersey. That's how much of a force Rannells is on stage.
This leads to Joseph Leo Bwarie, who has the most difficult role in the musical, that of Frankie Valli. It must be a friggin' nightmare for the casting agency to find small, Italian looking actors with a five octave tenor voice that can belt out, even in falsetto. Bwarie is splendid as "Valli". First the voice, my god that voice! It must take a toll on his vocal chords to sustain his voice to belt out those high, high notes night after night. From the second he hits the stage, Bwaire has song after song that requires him to go into impossible high soaring notes, belting in falsetto, or gliding down the lower register of his voice within a lyric. He has to do that through two acts. At Friday's performance, he was jaw-dropping spectacular. It was surreal on how much he sounded like Valli. For his acting, his best scene work came in the second act. This is logical as Valli becomes a man who takes control of his career, losing his wife, then a close & loving girlfriend, and ending his long relationship with Tommy DeVito. Then there's the aforementioned dramatic scene of Valli dealing with death. Bwarie shows his devastation clearly on his face and intense blue eyes as they fill with tears, pouring his heartache out. Bwarie's stage presence is mesmerizing, never once does it fade. He gives a star-in-the-making performance in this production.
Jersey Boys is the only jukebox musical to win the Tony Award for Best Musical. It is also in a very elite group within the canon of jukebox musicals that can be called a solid, qualified box office & critical hit. It has broken many box office records, not only on Broadway, but in practically every touring house in the nation.
So I end my review with a prediction, I have a suspicious feeling that Jersey Boys is going to smash box office records here at the Dallas Summer Musicals. I'll go even further, I predict they will break all box office records set at the Music Hall. Judging by the audience's ear-splitting screams, shouts, and thunderous standing ovation-this will be the biggest hit to grace the Music Hall.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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