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Theater Review: Jersey Boys at the Ahmanson Theatre (L.A.)

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Before music videos, when pop tunes were audio only, they nested in our imaginations with images and references gathered from the host brain.  This heightened the intimacy of the songs and piqued our interest in the singers hidden behind the radio grills and dust jackets.  That paradox, and a superbly slick production, help explain the popularity of Jersey Boys: The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons (with its national tour now lodged at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre through August 31).  It also explains why this may be a one-generation phenomenon.  

While millions of Boomers can sing every word of Four Seasons’ hits like "Walk Like a Man," "Big Girls Don’t Cry," "Sherry," "Oh, What a Night" and "Can’t Take My Eyes Off You," few can name every group member.  Revealing who they are and how they got where they are keeps this from being a billion-dollar Broadway tribute concert.  

Book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice have fun putting the story in a non-threatening environment: Damon Runyon meets the Brill Building rather than Goodfellas hit the Mean Streets (which is probably closer to the truth).  Even with the R-rated language it feels kid-friendly, with an appeal to adolescence through projections inspired by comic book panels.  A four-part, spring-summer-fall-winter storytelling structure gives each member his own Roshomon voice and overlays their business lifecycle onto the annual cycle of the seasons.  We get to see the members as individuals and as parts of a professional family.  It’s the ties that bind them that are the group's defining quality, even beyond the music.

The first version of the story comes from Tommy De Vito (Deven May), who recalls spotting the young Frankie Valli (Christopher Kale Jones) and bringing him into a bar band with his brother Nick (Miles Aubrey).  All three will spend time in jail, reminding us that the Bad Boy roots of rock didn’t begin with rap.  (Although it was something the ‘60s stars preferred to hide.)  Valli will reform, but Nick will return, and the band will replace him with a talented Nick Massi (Michael Ingersoll) as bass player. 

They’ll go through what seems an eternity looking for an identity until they find Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a teenage songwriter who already has a credit for one minor hit.  These become the Four Seasons (apparently the drummer wasn't that important), with Valli’s falsetto their signature sound and Gaudio’s songwriting their insurance for success.  The final piece in the puzzle will be their association with Bob Crewe, credited as lyricist for all the hits in Jersey Boys, but seen in the show as advisor and producer.

Director Des McAnuff, who in some ways started the phenomenon by turning The Who's Tommy into a Broadway money-machine, keeps things spinning throughout Jersey Boys.  Even the changing of Klara Zieglerova’s set pieces feel exciting.  The performers exhibit great range. The women move from lithe chorines to serviceable actors, providing girlfriends and wives, while the men portray heavies one minute and back-up musicians the next.  (Special marks to Jackie Seiden as Valli's first wife, who helps enliven Brickman's sharpest dialogue in a scene when the future spouses meet.)

There’s enough staging substance to disguise the fact that it's a show of fairly juvenile AM love songs.  The story too, for all its dramatic potential, has been kept safe, never too threatening.  The big moment, in which band members uphold a sense of honor to each other even as things are falling apart, is less awe-inspiring than "ah-that's-nice" inspiring. 

That may be the ultimate tribute to the Jersey boys.  The real danger and roughness of what they went through is beyond Broadway.  Similarly, the character and uniqueness of Valli’s voice is beyond the pale of a Broadway singer (except for a rarity like Tim Curry).  As good as Jones is, and he's very good, he's trained for power and purity, not personality.  The Four Seasons' versions still have the edge, and that renews the audio versions' lease in our memories, even now that we've come to know the men behind the music.

CREDITS Book by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice, music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe. music direction, vocal arrangements and incidental music by Ron Melrose, choreography by Sergio Trujillo, directed by Des McAnuff  WITH Erich Bergen, Michael Ingersoll, Christopher Kate Jones, Deven May, and Miles Aubrey, Erik Bates, Douglas Crawford, Sandra DeNise, Jennifer Evans, Rick Faugno, Eric Gutman, Nathan Klau, Brandon Matthieus, Jackie Seiden, Courter Simmons, Taylor Sternberg, Melissa Strom, with John Altieri and Joseph Siravo PRODUCTION Klara Zieglerova, sets; Jess Goldstein, costumes; Howll Binkley, lights; Steve Canyon Kennedy, sound; Michael Clark, projection design; Charles LaPointe, wig/hair; Steve Rankin, fights; Steve Orich, orchestrations, Andrew Wilder, conductor; Tripp Phillips, stage management

Ahmanson Theatre • May 25-August 31, 2007 (Opened June 3, rev. 6/3)  National tour produced by Dodger Theatricals, Joseoph J. Grano, Tamara and Kevin Kinsella, Pelican Group in association with Latitude Link and Rick Steiner  (Visit the tour website.)

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