It has to be, in Ed Sullivan’s immortal phrasing, “a really, really big shew” for the Syracuse New Times to cover one of the road productions Famous Artists brings to town. We may be grateful for the company’s enrichment of the cultural landscape, but with three-day runs they’re here and gone before we can get out another issue. Exceptions in the past were Phantom of the Opera, Wicked and The Lion King, all of which enjoyed record-breaking runs in New York City and London.
Given that Jersey Boys is a key example of the much-maligned form known as a “jukebox musical,” its long theatrical legs (the show opened in 2005) are harder to understand. But given the size and ecstatic response of the crowd in downtown Syracuse’s 2,900-seat Landmark Theatre at last Saturday’s matinee on Oct. 13, it makes a unique and visceral connection with its audience.
“Unique,” happening only once, is not a word to use glibly. There’s nothing unique about the core narrative, with four blue-collar kids making it big in show business a generation and a half ago. Up until 2005, Dreamgirls was the established hit in this genre, and it was built on compelling drama: a Faustian pact followed by the heartbreaking exclusion of the fat girl. In Jersey Boys, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons suffer some painful abrasions, but at the end they’re relatively rich and still speaking to each other.
The two things that make Jersey Boys unique are its razzle-dazzle packaging, with perhaps a thousand costume changes and 5,000 lighting and sound cues. And, secondly, that a show with this much glamorous packaging should still be bursting with feeling, and have so much heart.
Without already-written music, there would be no show. In the first act this will mean the three-in-a-row hits, “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.” But Jersey Boys is not a cheesy tribute band or a nostalgia concert. The show has rich characterization and a compelling dramatic arc as well as plenty of context.
The production begins with a raucous, in-your-face blast of rap, “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” which dissolves within a minute to reveal four guys with Brylcreem in their hair and shiny blazers. There’s no history lecture, but the lesson could not be clearer. Rock music was never innocent, but it was once gentler and given to easier harmonies.
Jersey Boys’ book by Marshall Brickman, Woody Allen’s one-time collaborator, and Rick Elice refuses to tell the story simply. They help us along with visual cues and Roy Lichtenstein-like graphics projected high above the stage. What we see first is the first of four seasons, “Spring,” which introduces Tommy DeVito (played in Syracuse by Devon Goffman), who tells us how the group got started, reformed and renamed itself, and turned itself into unbelievable successes. He allows himself a major role in all of this, but later, Rashomon-like, we understand Tommy’s significance better when we see him from different points of view. A friend of imposing mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Thomas Fiscella), Tommy knows how to make connections, including a short hustler named Joe Pesci (yeah, the real Joe Pesci). Unfortunately, Tommy is also a petty thief and a clumsy one. He gets caught trying to knock over a jewelry store and goes to jail.
Although his season as narrator will not come until later, most of the exposition centers on the 5-foot-5 high school dropout Frankie Castelluccio, who streamlines his name into Frankie Valli. After all, the subtitle of the show reads, in tiny print, “The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons.” Gifted from birth with the power of a belt-‘em-out falsetto, Valli could put on a show for a full evening, and, indeed, will appear (at age 78!) at the Turning Stone Resort and Casino’s Event Center on Nov. 10.
Asking a performer not born with the capacity to re-create that falsetto for a three-week run is a form of theatrical sadism. Thus, two singers share the role, Brad Weinstock and Hayden Milanes, the latter appearing at last Saturday’s matinee. The task is not simply to mimic the voice so well known from recordings, but to re-create the guilelessness and earnest artistic resolution. Milanes has a steady handle on the tricky balance. Frankie is the character we care about most, but he is not a boss nor does he dominate.
“Summer” brings along Bob Gaudio (Jason Kappus), who had already written a hit song, “Short Shorts,” before Pesci takes him to see the band perform, where he is wowed by Frankie’s voice. They become fast friends, and seal a lasting partnership with a handshake. Gaudio’s name may not be as renowned as Frankie’s, but the program for Jersey Boys cites him as the principal composer. As an intimate, Gaudio learns about the bad news first, which he then reports to us, and Tommy’s financial shenanigans top the list.
“Fall” opens the second act and turns the microphone over to Nick Massi (Brandon Andrus), a dry, laconic wit and the most reliable source of one-liners in a show with plenty of laughs. Although Massi had been singing in a trio before Frankie appeared and helped to train him, he comes to see himself in a lesser position: “What do you do if it’s a four-man group, and you’re Ringo?” Massi also has to tell us how much more of a liability Tommy DeVito eventually becomes.
In “Winter” Frankie speaks in his own voice, lamenting the end of his marriage and, much more, the death of his daughter Francine (Rachel Schur) from drugs at age 22, prompting the plaintive “Fallen Angel.” He also explains the difficulties that he and Gaudio had in getting his last big hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” to be released. Writers Brickman and Elice knew what they were doing in putting this toward the end: It brings down the house.
No recitation of song titles or praise for performances can explain Jersey Boys’ profound appeal. A bit of it is remembering. A black-and-white film loop shows 1960s teenagers, some on The Ed Sullivan Show, flushed with joy, as if they had had their first sexual experience. Some of those people, 40-plus years later, are in the audience. The Beatles might have come from scruffy Liverpool, but they quickly attracted upmarket audiences. Without an ounce of patronizing, these guys are blue-collar heroes, the ordinary raised to the extraordinary.
Jersey Boys first opened far from the industrial waste fields of New Jersey at the ultra-posh LaJolla Playhouse in California. There it acquired master director Des McAnuff, who is credited in this performance. He previously won a Tony Award for The Who’s Tommy and more recently ran the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Ontario. He’s the real miracle worker in this show.
This production runs through Oct. 28. See Times Table for information.