Thursday, November 11, 2010

Oh What a Night

The sign in the lobby said, "This show contains strobe lighting, gunfire, and profane authentic Jersey language," so I knew I was in for a good time when I arrived at Philadelphia's Forrest Theatre for a production of Jersey Boys.

Jersey Boys tells the story of the rise and fall (and rise) of the singing group The Four Seasons. Tommy DeVito a musician from Belleville, New Jersey, formed several different bands in the 50's, all of which were unsuccessful. He and his various bandmates were Italian-American blue collar kids from central Jersey who dabbled in gambling and petty crimes before making it big. In 1965 they added Frank Castelluccio, then apprenticing as a barber, to the group. Castelluccio quickly changed his name to Frankie Valli ("Valli with an I, a vowel on the end, 'cause you're Italian!") and joined DeVito, Nick Massi, and Bob Gaudio as the fourth member of the newly christened Four Seasons.

Over the next years, The Four Seasons had several #1 hits and appeared on American Bandstand. They continued to dominate the charts in the early 60s, the Beach Boys being their only real American competition.

The Four Seasons music highlighted Frankie Valli's impressive falsetto voice in its pop hits like "Sherry" and "Big Girls Don't Cry." Indeed, these hits and a string of others are featured during the rollicking two hour show. (The Playbill helpfully lists "The Ones That Got Away" - The Four Seasons hits that didn't make it into the show - just to reinforce the achievements of the group). It is remarkable that producers have been able to find a string of actors who can replicate Valli's falsetto - and who are also very short. (Valli's small stature is well-known and is mentioned in the dialogue of the show.)

The musical is structured like a documentary of the group's rise to fame. It is divided into four parts, labeled Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter, naturally, and corresponding to DeVito, Gaudio, Massi, and Valli. The set is rather spare, with smaller props and pieces gliding quickly in and out when they are needed for a song or story. The supporting cast members all play multiple parts, and they too seem to glide in and out of scenes in countless different costumes. There is no orchestra in the pit - the musicians actually appear on stage as part of the production, and in some cases the actors play guitar in character as well.

The national touring company leads of Matt Bailey (Tommy DeVito), Steve Gouveia (Nick Massi), Quinn VanAntwerp (Bob Gaudio), and Joseph Leo Bwarie (Frankie Valli) have been together for months on the road and for the most part, they make the audience believe it's watching and listening to the real Four Seasons. Quinn VanAntwerp, however, will never look like an Italian street kid, no matter how good his Jersey accent is and how much black hair dye he uses - he can't hide the fact that his face resembles a Hummel figurine . This is just a minor complaint though, his singing and acting were top-notch.

The four leads sing and dance on all the big Four Seasons hits including "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)," "My Eyes Adored You," "Dawn (Go Away)," "Let's Hang on (To What We've Got)," and "Walk Like a Man." It's impossible not to sway along to the doo-wop rhythm of the music.

Interestingly, on the night I attended, Courter Simmons, the understudy, played the lead role of Frankie Valli. The understudy (not the alternate actor) who usually plays a bit part in the show stepped up to the spotlight. He was so good we did not realize we were not seeing the headliner until intermission. At the end of a big medley of songs in the middle of the second act, Simmons received a huge ovation from the audience and he appeared to briefly break character, with a few extra nods of his head and a wave to the audience in appreciation for the extended applause.

The performance I attended also was interpreted in sign language for a section of the audience. Three sign language interpreters were on the orchestra floor, stage left, and interpreted the whole show. It was fascinating to watch, especially the interpretation of the "profane authentic Jersey language" some signs of which I was already familiar!

Jersey Boys is the universal story of rags to riches for these kids. Along the way there is success, discord, friendship, and tragedy, all accompanied by snappy rhythms and soaring harmonies. It's easy to see why this show won the Tony for best musical in 2006. It's two hours of pure musical merriment and diversion from real life.


  1. Great review, WOS, right from the opening hook! I haven't thought about these songs in a long time, yet the minute I read this, they popped right back into my head! Interesting the way that works, isn't it? My short term memory is surely fading, but Valli's falsetto on Sherry is right there for the taking (like it or not). Amusing about the sign language--but of course some of those signs would be universally recognizable, wouldn't they?

  2. What a great way to start my day! Your review makes me regret that I never made the effort to see this show when I had the chance - I didn't realize that this oh-so-familiar music went with it - yes, I had to sway along with that clip!

  3. Now I am sorry I didn't see this when I went to Las Vegas a month ago. I loved the 4 Seasons as a child. "Sherry Baby" and many other of their lyrics were often heard at a reasonable volume (to me) coming from my bedroom. You have brought a smile to my face, thanks, WOS!


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