I first saw Jersey Boys when it came to Indy a few years ago. When people asked me about it, I would answer that it was a good show–for a jukebox musical. This sub-genre of musicals relies on the work of a pop artist or a particular era of music rather than original songs. For many jukebox musicals, that means hanging the songs onto a flimsily constructed story, as in Mama Mia! or Rock of Ages. However in Jersey Boys, the music of the Four Seasons is used to tell the story of the Four Seasons. And that makes all the difference.
After seeing Jersey Boys again tonight, I can tell you that it isn’t just good for a jukebox musical. It’s an excellent musical of any stripe and one of the best touring productions I’ve seen in a good long while.
The music is great, sung and played by freakishly talented musicians, though there are no surprises. It’s the classic music of the Four Seasons, including “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and my personal favorite, “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).” What this musical excels at is putting that tried-and-true music into an emotional context that gives them tremendous resonance. When “Walk Like a Man” is reprised at the end of the first act, it’s transformed from an anthem of spurned boys into a recrimination against a group member who has shirked his responsibility. When Frankie sings “Bye Bye Baby,” it’s sung both to his wayward daughter as well as to his wayward group, which is falling apart in front of his eyes. Though many of the lyrics are bubblegum, the show builds a sturdy emotional framework around them that makes them greater than they are.
The structure of the show is tight as a drum. The first act is a breathless whirlwind, with almost continual music. The second act has more space to breathe and consider the emotional blowback from the group’s meteoric rise to fame. The narration is divided into four–what else?–seasons, each narrated by a member of the group. It’s a fun study in unreliable narrators, since none of the group member’s stories are to be entirely believed.
The seasons give each cast member a chance to shine with their acting, which is a rare treat in a musical. John Gardiner as Tommy DeVito is all bluster, swagger, and heart; Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi is a stoic presence for much of the show before busting out some serious comedic chops. Nick Cosgrove’s Frankie Valli has the beautiful bell-like voice and nasal falsetto needed for the role and brings what life he can to a role that’s not terribly developed outside of that voice.
However, the surprise of the night was Tommaso Antico as Bob Gaudio. You always groan a little when you see an understudy is subbing in; even though you know they’re great, part of you can’t help but feel you’re getting the B team. But Antico brought a real sensitivity and plain old likability to wunderkind writer Gaudio. It’s a role that can easily come off as know-it-allish or unpleasant, but Antico kept an innocence and a sly wit about him. Sure, he strained a bit on his big solo in “December, 1963,” but Bob emerged as my favorite of the group, thanks to Antico’s character work.
The staging is crisp, minimal, and clever, enhanced by video panels with comic book-like images and live footage of the group as they sing in profile to the audience. The set is mostly a chain link fence and a staircase, never letting us fully forget that at heart, these are boys from the wrong side of the tracks. They’re boys who never should have made it anywhere except jail, but by pulling together and always, always staying true to each other (even when maybe they shouldn’t have), they found a way to thrive. More or less.
Jersey Boys can proudly hold its head up as a great musical in its own right, without any qualifiers or limitations. It’s fast-paced, funny, thoughtful, with fun music sung by talented people. Even if you’re not familiar with the Four Seasons, you’ll find a lot to love in Jersey Boys. It’s in Indianapolis through January 20 at the Murat Theatre at the Old National Centre.
My tickets were provided courtesy of Broadway Across America Indianapolis. I was asked to tweet about my experiences, but the opinions are my own. I was not asked to write this blog and was not compensated in any other way.