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Theater Review (Indianapolis): Jersey Boys by Des McAnuff on tour at the Murat Theater

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Years ago, I read a prominent rock critic’s argument that the unidentified session drummer played an essential role in the success of The Four Season’s best hit records. Sure, the material was top-notch, the arrangements superb, and the vocals stunning. But what ultimately put across songs like “Walk Like A Man,” “Working My Way Back To You,” “C’mon Marianne,” and “Rag Doll”—in that critic’s view—was the propulsive drumming.

Des McAnuff, director of the stage musical Jersey Boys, must agree: there is a drummer onstage for nearly the entirety of the show.

My wife and I were recently in Indianapolis, Indiana, for a matinee performance by the touring company of Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, at the delightful Murat Theater. The weather being unseasonably warm that June afternoon, we were limp as rag dolls, so the reasonably-priced martinis offered at the elegant lobby bar were welcome refreshments. (Also recommended for drinks and food is the Rathskeller, in the Athenaeum Building, another of the city’s architectural treasures, just across the street from the Murat.)

We had orchestra seats in the 2,500-seat theater, affording us a terrific view of the stage. The sound was crisp and well mixed, loud enough for the music to have impact without being subwoofer-in-the-next-car-over obnoxious about it. Rare as theater-going is for me, I had little idea of how Broadway treats rock and roll, so the quality and substantial volume of the sound was a pleasant surprise.

The Four Seasons is one of those groups that you may realize was successful, but not appreciate the magnitude of that success until numbers like 100 million get tossed around as total record sales figures. Another measure of their influence was the frequency at which my wife, a more casual music consumer than I, said, “I didn’t know that was their song!” Even for someone who probably played The Four Seasons Story hits package more often than The Dark Side of the Moon as an undergrad, the sheer number of their hits, many of which are included in the show, is surprising.

Speaking as a theater neophyte, I am eminently unqualified to judge the quality of the acting performances, except to say that the cast was uniformly excellent and the leads were all convincing as Jersey street kids of the Sixties. One of the Four Seasons, Nick Massi, was played by an understudy, but so ably, it led us to wonder how remarkable the regular actor must be in the role.

A major point of controversy when Jersey Boys first hit the road was whether or not the performers were playing and singing live or mugging to canned music. There were very few instances where it was apparent that the performances were live; however, I’ve since seen cast members sing live on talk shows, and various members of the crew have sworn to the authenticity of the performances onstage. They are just very capable, making for a outstanding live music experience.

Both the presentation and selection of music are first-rate. Although personally I could do without “My Eyes Adored You” and “My Mother’s Eyes,” the production won me over for good when a bravura rendition of “Beggin’” showed up in the second act. Inventive staging kept the plentiful musical numbers from feeling like merely a glorified concert. To recreate the Four Seasons’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, black and white cameras were used, onstage, to project live TV feeds on screens above the stage. A concert performance was recreated by simulating the view from backstage, complete with glaring stage lights and placing the actors with their backs to the audience. It was a highly effective evocation of being onstage.

The attention to period authenticity—or what we will accept as authentic—was notable. Not one, but two vintage Farfisa organs were used, as appropriate to the very specific time period of the songs they supported. Unfortunately and surprisingly, given the eye for detail, a modern, visibly anachronistic keyboard was used throughout the second act, when the songs being played predated the instrument by decades. This was likely not noticeable to many in the audience, but for one who lusts after an old Farfisa, it was obvious and distracting.

To an avid reader of music-related biographies, the structure and presentation of Jersey Boys narrative is familiar. The story is not terribly compelling, or even original, existing primarily to break up the thirty-plus songs in the show. Jersey Boys does avoid the common fault of biographers in giving only one principal’s point of view. Like Peter Guaraldi’s massive Elvis biographies, however, after a potent opening act (or volume), the second part feels somewhat rushed and less substantial.

Despite my general indifference to the theater, I was thoroughly entertained, and would recommend Jersey Boys to any fan of the Four Seasons’ music, or of musicals, in general. The success of this show may herald a new trend of credible rock and roll-based musicals; for instance, Tommy James has said that the Jersey Boys producers are creating a musical from his autobiography, Me, The Mob, and The Music.

Oh, and any other logistical considerations notwithstanding, the Murat was the ideal setting for this show. The theater’s on North New Jersey Street.

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About James A. Gardner

  • Robert Fountain

    On Saturday 2nd October 2010 I saw Jersey Boys at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. Why did the script writers insert the words f*** and f****** into the cast’s dialogue? I suggest it was totally unnecessary. I was greatly offended and embarrassed by the swearing used in this public entertainment venue. Having been taken to live theatre and musicals as a boy by my parents (at the original Theater Royal) my expectations of good quality entertainment have been dashed again. I think that contemporary writers are devoid of the literary skill, wit and knowledge of how to entertain folk. They appear to be hooked on the use of gutter language as a means to shock folk and just are ignorant of how to make people laugh. What ever happened to the use of innuendo and humour? They ought to take a look at the script and songs used for stage shows with much bigger casts such as “the Canterbury Tales” with Johnny Lockwood back in the 1960s. Jersey Boys just was not worth the $180 I paid. The directors need to get script writers of much better quality. I give it one out of ten for a couple of decent songs. I tell all my contacts not to waste their money to go and listen to a bunch of yobs swearing all night. Robert.

  • http://thismeaneveryone.blogspot.com James A. Gardner

    Robert: Thanks for your comments.

    While I didn’t find the few obscenities–and they were few, hardly “swearing all night”–especially necessary, I imagine they were part of an effort for authenticity. At the performance we attended, a sign in the lobby indicated that there would be (and I paraphrase) “authentic New Jersey dialog” used in the play. Was there no such warning at the performance you saw?

    I’m confused by your recommendation that “They… take a look at the script and songs used for stage shows… such as ‘The Canterbury Tales.'” Are you aware that the songs used in Jersey Boys were, for the most part, Four Seasons’ music? Kind of the point of the play, so I don’t believe using other music would have been effective.

    I am not familiar with any staging of The Canterbury Tales, but do know the book; The Pardoner’s Tale, in fact, includes a “Sermon on Swearing.” Elsewhere, however, Chaucer made rather extensive and innovative use of obscenity; The Miller’s Tale centers around a bawdy story, or dirty joke. There’s a wealth of scholarship about Chaucer’s raunchiness; this article offers a decent overview.

    I’m sorry you were offended and not entertained by Jersey Boys, and I agree in general with your opinion of the use of obscenity as a cheap shock tactic. I do, however, acknowledge that the producers did warn at our performance about the language.

  • Jenlee

    I saw Jersey Boys last summer, it was amazing! It was so great to experience their story, and their music together. I felt I was back in the 1960’s. GREAT SHOW! My mother bought last week me tickets from Ticketsinventory.com as Christmas present but I decided to sell them as the timing wasn’t right. So bad!