Sunday, June 17, 2012
Theater review: Jersey Boys at Winspear Opera House in Dallas
Flawed production but impressive nonetheless.
My first observation of this mega hit, Tony-award-winning musical based on the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons was its first national tour at Dallas Summer Musicals in 2008. I gave the production an ecstatic, glowing review, from its book, score and direction to its choreography, design elements, and particularly the performances.
Within that cast was Andrew Rannells who portrayed Bob Gaudio. In my review, I specifically singled out his performance and stated his work demanded to be seen on Broadway. In 2009, Rannells would go on to portray that very role on Broadway. Then just a mere two years ago, Dallas audiences again saw Rannells in Dallas Theater Center's phenomenal hit Give It Up. I again highly praised Rannells' work. This very talented actor would go on to originate the role of Elder Price in the blockbuster hit musical The Book of Mormon, earning him a Tony nod for Best Actor in a Musical. He just left the show on June 10 as he will be seen in the new fall television comedy, Partners.
I begin with this back-story to show that national tours are packed with stellar talent that may not be household names yet but soon will be on Broadway and beyond.
The musical Jersey Boys has won a truckload of awards including eight Tony nominations, winning four including Best Musical; the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Musical Show Album; the 2009 Olivier Award for Best Musical and so on. Since opening on Broadway in 2005 at the August Wilson Theatre, the musical is continuing to pack the audiences in. As of January 2012, this musical has been seen by approximately 14 million people worldwide.
Since I reviewed this musical a mere three years ago, I won't go into great detail about the plot, etc. Suffice to say that this is a rare gem of a musical in the fact that it is a Jukebox Musical that works. The term Jukebox is coined for musicals that use the musical catalogues of artists and/or groups and construct a musical around them. Many have flopped and oh so few have succeeded. What makes Jersey Boys that glistening rare hit is that the book pulls songs from the Four Seasons musical catalog and puts them into the story, BUT not according to the year they were recorded and/or released. Book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice researched these artists' entire music catalog and picked which songs best fit emotionally into the story, regardless of the year it was recorded. This gives the book such emotional strength, structure, and storytelling appeal. Their engrossing book earned them a Tony nomination for their top notch efforts.
The basic story is the rise of this group of blue-collar boys from the wrong side of the tracks that would go on to become one of the biggest American pop star groups of all time. They wrote their own songs, invented their unique own sound, and sold 175 million records - all before they were 30 years old!
This tour returns to Dallas at the Winspear with the original Broadway production team intact. You had Des McAnuff's magnificent direction, Sergio Trujillo's appealing choreography, Klara Zieglerova's eclectic scenic design (earning a Tony nod in the process), and Jess Goldstein's flawless costume design. Within the designers, it was Howell Binkley's eye-popping, spectacular lighting design and Michael Clark's projections/video design that really made the musical come so alive with dazzling energy. Binkley won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Lighting Design for his efforts here, and you'll see why as you watch Jersey Boys.
So, did this current national tour deliver the same emotional impact that the 2008 tour delivered when they first came to Dallas? With a heavy heart I must admit that this production was a mixed bag that ranged from outstanding to confusing, and at times utterly bewildering.
The first hint that this was an uneven production was the approach and delivery of the comedy that is within the book. Theater comedy can go from over the top shtick to vaudevillian to witty drawing room to sophisticated humor. Because this musical is based on the lives of real people, the comedic dialogue and situations should sound almost accidental or as matter of fact. In the 2008 national tour they did just that. They didn't push or force the laughs; they just sprung up like natural conversation. But for some bizarre reason, this current company on Friday evening forced the comedy way too hard. Minor characters were exaggerated, over the top carbon copies of standard musical comedy, and became paint-by-number characterizations.
The comedy penned in the book was now pushed too big, as though they were hitting the audience with a massive cream pie as if to say, "Here's the joke! Get it?" This perplexing approach to the comedy came from both the ensemble and some of the principals.
The performances within this cast ran the gamut from terrific to frustrating. As the mobster/Sea Breeze club owner Gyp DeCarlo, Thomas Fiscella stuck to the stereotype of what we have seen a billion times when it comes to those sort of roles. But to go so over the top with the bawling when Frankie sang his favorite song, it took the reality out of the situation and made it look buffoonish. He again stuck to familiarity in the role of a record producer in the second act. He did much better in the brief scene as the Priest.
Ruby Lewis, as the lead singer of the Angels, was another disheartening performance. Vocally she could not carry the song "My Boyfriend's Back". She lacked volume and the inability to sustain the notes. It also sounded as though the song itself was out of her range. Natalie Gallo portrayed Mary Delgado, Frankie's first wife. Like some of her co-stars, she too forced the comedy, making her so broad to the point of sounding much like Snooki from MTV`s The Jersey Shore. However, her second act work was much better when it came to the dramatic scenes with Frankie.
Then there was Barry Anderson as Bob Crewe, a music producer who signs the group first. Bob Crewe is gay, but in the book it never clearly states that. In fact, Bob Gaudio is the one who informs the audience that he thought there was something different about him. The closest he gets to stating that Crewe is gay, Gaudio tells the audience, "Back then people thought of Liberace as being theatrical". In the 2008 tour, that actor played him straight with only a slight hint of faint flamboyance to let the audience know he is gay. This is the right approach. Back then gay men were not open, but suppressed their sexuality deep in the closet. This was pre-Stonewall.
It is no secret that, when it comes to gay characters on stage, nothing angers me more than stereotyping them to be flaming queens with broken wrists. That caricature only perpetuates the image that make so many gay people cringe. It is well documented by so many gay writers/authors, from Dan Savage to Larry Kramer, that portraying gay men like that only feeds the beast of society to assume that is how all gay men act. Thus it was startling to see Anderson portray the role so flamboyantly. From his walk and actually having that broken wrist to his speaking voice, I almost thought Carmen Ghia from The Producers had accidentally walked into the wrong musical. It was excruciating watching Anderson portray the role that way.
As for the actual four main principals, once again we were met with mixed results.
Brandon Andrus gave a terrific, well-grounded and marvelous performance as Nick Massi, the bass voice of the group. He had magnetic stage presence and thankfully allowed the comedy to flow out naturally. Andrus never tried to go for the cheap laughs or the jugular to land his comedy; he allowed it to ebb out superbly, always landing its mark. His dramatic scene work turned out to be some of the most honest, natural moments within the evening and never came off false. Andrus was outstanding.
As Bob Gaudio, Jason Kappus was another performer who delivered a superior performance. Oddly enough, Kappus did slightly resemble Rannells physically. Kappus had that rare gift of flawless comedic timing and delivery. He didn't have to push for the laughs; he had that clear focus of where the laughs should go. Kappus had a vivid, glowing stage presence that filled the stage effortlessly. When it came to the dramatic situations within his characterization, he nailed every scene with organic realism. Kappus as the composer who penned so many of the Four Seasons' biggest hits delivered a spectacular performance.
Colby Foytik delivered the star-making performance of the evening as Tommy DeVito, the member who laid claim that he founded Valli and the group, but also was the catalyst to tear them apart. He, like Andrus and Kappus, had phenomenal comedic timing, the best within the cast. There were a couple of times where he skirted close to forcing the comedy but he immediately got back on track. This actor was cloaked in fascinating, riveting stage presence. He used all the right acting choices to give DeVito range, dynamics, and dimensions. From becoming a big brother to Valli to ending with his Machiavellian control of the group, Foytik never once lost the intensity that the role demanded. Even in his softer moments, he had this under layer of dark subtext that made the character stand out. Foytik delivered the performance that audiences will remember long after seeing this musical.
The leading role, the star of the Four Seasons, Frankie Valli, was portrayed by Brad Weinstock. Two other actors share the role on different performances, according to the playbill. I'm sure this is due to the extreme vocal demands that the role requires. And sadly, that was the major problem within Weinstock's performance. Having listened to John Lloyd Young sing the role on the original Broadway cast CD and then watching Joseph Leo Bwarie in the 2008 tour portray the role, it is very obvious how difficult and demanding this role is vocally. The actor who portrays Valli must possess a five-octave range, including falsetto, and the vocal strength to belt out high tenor notes with clarity and strength.
Most audiences are quite familiar of how unique Valli's singing voice sounds like. Bwarie achieved magnificent success in the role for the 2008 tour. The same cannot be said for Weinstock. His upper range sounded as though he was struggling to reach those notes. It didn't help that when he went into the vocal stratosphere of those famous Valli high tenor notes, it came out nasal. His vocals at times sounded like he had sucked helium from a balloon off stage so that his voice had a Minnie Mouse-like quality. At other times he seemed to sing from the back of his throat. In those high notes there were times where he was right under the correct key. It was baffling listening to him as the evening progressed. Now, in the lower half of his tenor range he sounded fantastic. The vocals came out crystal clear with wide open notes. He strived so hard to sound like Valli but regrettably it failed him. His acting craft was satisfactory if somewhat lackluster. He too fell victim of forcing the comedy upon the audience too hard. His dramatic scenes lacked the grounded realism that they were intended. Take for example the dramatic scene regarding his teen daughter. Weinstock did not lay the foundation of painful, emotional subtext the scene demanded. Instead, it came off false. I so wanted to enjoy Weinstock's work in this role but it left me scratching my head in confusion and disappointment.
I will say however, when all four leading men together sang many of the hits made famous by this pop band that were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, it was musical perfection. The harmonies were spot on. The chemistry between the four was also to be commended. They played off each other splendidly.
Now in full disclosure here, the audience Friday night did laugh out loud many times at the over the top comedy and several of Weinstock's big solos were met with thunderous cheers and applause.
Overall I still enjoyed the production even with all its flaws. The music, the amazing orchestra, and design elements still packed the punch of gleeful enjoyment that I so admired the first time I saw it. And there were some sensational performances. So maybe it was just me that felt that way regarding the problems I had with this current tour. But that is what live theater does. Each person walks out with their own personal opinions and views of the show. I still fully encourage you to see Jersey Boys at the Winspear and then come to your own conclusions about the production. Regardless of my disappointment, it still was an impressive production.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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