Review by Karen Topham, American Theatre Critics Association member; photo by Joan Marcus.
One of the most fascinating things that happens watching Jersey Boys is the fact that, at many points, you completely forget you are watching a play and instead feel that you are actually watching the Four Seasons perform. People even call out from the crowd, applauding not just the songs but plot developments as well, a tribute to how intimate this large-scale production manages to feel. For those who, like me, have somehow missed this international phenomenon, it’s a great idea to get to the Auditorium Theatre right away so you don’t miss this highly entertaining power-punch of a show.
Telling the real behind the scenes story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, it is full of great music and fascinating storylines that were completely unknown until Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice decided to tell the story in a jukebox musical format. Directed by Des McAnuff, this traveling production is clean and a joy to watch. It is also extremely well-acted. Jonny Wexler makes a perfect Valli, the once-innocent teen who becomes a sensation when he opens his mouth to sing. Corey Greenan plays Tommy DeVito, the man who discovers him and gets him to join with a band that, at that time, is called the Four Lovers. Jonathan Cable is an understated Nick Massi, the group’s bassist and conscience, and Eric Chambliss plays Bob Gaudio, the last member to join the group and the one who brought with him the songs that would make them famous.
And it is, of course, those songs that are front and center in this show. Wexler’s gorgeous Valli impersonation sounds exquisite on such numbers as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” and the others fill in some glorious harmonies while Chambliss’ solo on “Oh What a Night” is one of the highlights. Sergio Trujillo’s choreography and Jess Goldstein’s costumes make it easy to believe you are watching the real thing, too.
For the uninitiated: the play is structured into four “seasons,” each one corresponding to a particular time in the band’s life. (Spring is its formation, Summer its heyday, etc.) Each section is narrated by a different band member, all of whom have their own interpretations of events that brought them together and eventually tore them apart, like DeVito’s enormous gambling debts that caused major difficulties for his bandmates. What we watch is, basically, the rise and fall of a hugely popular band.
The show plays out on a Klara Zieglerova set lit beautifully by Howell Binkley. It is a stark two-story base set embellished by all sorts of gorgeous lighted signs and backgrounds. (One such sign, for a club called “Four Seasons,” gives the band its ultimate monicker. “It’s a sign!” one band member proclaims upon seeing it during their incessant early search for a good name.) The simple set is an echo of the story of four guys from New Jersey who began by singing on street corners and worked themselves into one of the country’s most recognizable bands at a time when the Beatles were stealing all of the press. Valli’s voice, so different from anything else on the radio, along with Gaudio’s songs, put them on top and kept them there even after the other original band members left.
In many ways their story is also the story of their era. There is something heartwarming and inspiring about the tale of four musicians who come from a place where you either “mobbed up” or tried to become famous (the actor Joe Pesci hung with them in his youth and in fact introduced Gaudio to the band) making a success out of themselves. Two of them had police records when the band started. They were friendly with mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Todd DuBail). Their lives could have gone in very different directions, but they made something of themselves on their own terms, never forgetting the old neighborhood.
If you’ve never seen Jersey Boys before—and even if you have—you’d be doing yourself a favor to get down to the Auditorium this week for this excellent production, which unfortunately stays in Chicago such a short time and then it’s “Bye Bye Baby.”
Jersey Boys is a Broadway in Chicago production now playing at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Ida B. Wells Dr, Chicago, through April 7. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and at theatreinchicago.com.