To Everything There Is a Season by Matthew Murray

    JerseyBoysLV1.jpgJersey Boys, whether on Broadway (where I first saw it with the original cast) or in Las Vegas (where I saw it last week at the Palazzo), is a musical packed with marvelous moments. The sizzling scene in the first act when, after half an hour of singing other groups' hits, the four men who've just changed their group's name to The Four Seasons bust out with "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," and "Walk Like a Man" in rapid succession. The ramp up to the first-act finale, when the foursome performs the last section of "Dawn (Go Away)" in strangely stunning reverse perspective. Of course when the group has dissolved and the lead singer, Frankie Valli, sends his solo career into the stratosphere with "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," complete with a shimmering horn section. And the full-cast finale, "Who Loves You," that somehow sums up the unique relationship of Valli, Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio, and Nick Massi against a backdrop of mock-60s kitsch while jolting the lights down one final, satisfying time.

    These individual instances are so electric, and the score (by the real Gaudio and Bob Crewe) so timelessly pleasing, that one is sorely tempted to give the rest of the show a pass. After all, when it premiered in November 2005, the jukebox musical's Broadway provenance was not exactly an impressive one, buoyed as it was by the execrable hit Mamma Mia! and flops embarrassing (Good Vibrations), baffling (All Shook Up), and ludicrous (Lennon). That librettists Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, choreographer Sergio Trujillo, and director Des McAnuff had treated the rise and fall of Valli and the Four Seasons with the indomitable energy usually only deployed by completely new shows was such a mind-boggling development, it almost seemed as if the plentiful infelicities didn't matter. Even now, the same is still true: You have to work feverishly hard to convince yourself that the not-so-great show you're watching isn't one of the most blissful outings of the past decade.

    McAnuff and Trujillo have injected luminous magic into Brickman and Elice's limited property, the former staging with a fast and fiercely filmic pacing and the latter cobbling together deceptively complex dances out of anyone-could-do-them footsteps and arm swipes. The result of their work is that the show is forever in motion, progressing from Frankie, Tommy, and Nick's earliest days as Garden State hoodlums (and Bob's as the musical prodigy behind "Short Shorts") to country- and standard-spanning fame while barely letting you catch your breath whenever the pace briefly slackens to allow in a few lines of dialogue.

    That's the innovation that sets Jersey Boys apart: McAnuff does everything he can to prevent you from focusing on the dialogue which, as in any jukebox musical, is far and away the weakest point. If Brickman and Elice's book is king of its genre's trash heap, it's still in many ways amateurishly and clumsily written. It's loaded with uncomfortable dialogue, sketchy plot compression, and character development that runs from uneven (for Frankie, Tommy, and Bob) to nonexistent (for Nick and all of the female characters), none of which are hallmarks of a good musical-theatre book.

    The real strength of Brickman and Elice's work is in the shaping and the distribution of the songs. They treat the guys' earliest covers almost as fantasy that can be refashioned into reality instantly when they hit it big with "Sherry." And because nearly every song functions diegetically—that is, as a song the characters know they are singing rather than as an emotional statement—you're not the target of a constant barrage of self-important false feelings the way you are when an American woman living in Greece suddenly sings "The Winner Takes It All," for example. The very few times Brickman and Elice do delve into "traditional" song spotting—"December, 1963 (Oh What a Night)" chronicling Bob's devirginization, "Fallen Angel" as Frankie's cry of pain over the daughter he let himself lose too easily—the results are so awkward and unearned that the show threatens to grind to a complete halt.

    JerseyBoysLV2.jpgBut it never does. It keeps going, spiriting you right along with it until the very end, and never letting you worry too much about songs that don't work dramatically, scenes that play like traffic snarls, or Klara Zieglerova's ugly concrete jungle–meets–Blade Runner set. (The Liechtenstein-style projections, designed by Michael Clark, are acceptable if sometimes overwrought.) The show won't let you not have a good time, and because McAnuff has treated it with the utmost seriousness of intent (something missing from his disastrous recent Broadway of Guys and Dolls), you do, even when you know you probably shouldn't.

    With the exception of the intermission—an eight-minute "break" as opposed to a full 15-minute division—and a couple of extra projection screens, I noticed no major changes in the Las Vegas version. But what can't escape your notice is the cast, which is in several ways superior to the original Broadway group. Deven May is spectacular as Tommy, summoning an irritatingly lovable lout without drenching him in Italian caricature the way the role's creator, Christian Hoff, did. (His singing is also sublime; May, who was the original Bat Boy, is one of the current musical theatre's most tragically underutilized talents.) Jeff Leibow is severely hampered by Nick's borderline-criminal underwriting, but nonetheless makes the character the sturdy and stentorian common-sense anchor the Seasons need, allowing the character to feel like far more a presence than it did with J. Robert Spencer. As Bob Gaudio, Peter Saide captures pure innocence but without the slyly simmering calculation that Daniel Reichard brought to the character; this starts to grow old by the second act, when everyone should be hardening, but Saide's performance is heartfelt.

    Frankie, the demanding role that won John Lloyd Young a Tony Award, is double cast with Rick Faugno and Travis Cloer (though Dominic Scaglione Jr. replaces the latter for two weeks starting January 19). I saw Faugno, and he was largely excellent, bringing a cagey conviction to his scenes and singing his songs with a palpable passion. Faugno's falsetto, however, lacked edge—it seemed too disconnected from the heartier growl of his chest voice, and lacked the deeper masculine underpinnings that was the most compelling element of Young's and the real Valli's voices.

    That this incongruity ultimately matters little is par for the course for this show. This is the rare musical that can absorb and spit out almost any problem, and work despite so many pieces that just don't fit together properly. From the book on up, Jersey Boys is in no way great, or even particularly good. But because it knows and respects its limitations, it's an invigorating evening, and probably one of the very best you can have in Las Vegas without regretting it the following morning.

    Jersey Boys is playing at the Jersey Boys Theatre at the Palazzo Las Vegas, and performs Monday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday at 7:00 PM; Tuesday and Saturday at 6:30 PM and 9:30 PM. Ticket prices range from $67 to $147 plus tax and handling fees. For tickets, click here.

    Photographs by Isaac Brekken.

    Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 6:28 AM | Item Link

    The last five columns written by Matthew Murray:

    02/13/2010: No Leniency for Theatre Phone Criminals

    01/30/2010: It's Better with a Union Stand?

    01/12/2010: To Everything There Is a Season

    12/31/2009: The Best Theatre of the Decade

    10/19/2009: The Award I Wish I Could Give

    For a listing of all features written by Matthew, click here.