JERSEY BOYS at The Palazzo and PHANTOM–THE LAS VEGAS SPECTACULAR at the Venetian – Las Vegas Theater Reviews

by Tony Frankel on November 10, 2010

in Theater-Las Vegas

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ONE BRINGS DOWN THE HOUSE; THE OTHER, JUST A CHANDELIER.

My assignment to review “the old and the new” Las Vegas included two Broadway transplants, ones that may give insight into the future of musical theatre in Las Vegas: the highly entertaining Jersey Boys at The Palazzo and the heartless, stunning spectacle Phantom–The Las Vegas Spectacular, playing next door at the Venetian.

Importing a musical from New York to Las Vegas has proved to be tricky: Broadway’s Avenue Q, the pseudo-Sesame Street entertainment for adults (and Tony Award winner for Best Musical) closed after nine months at the Wynn, which is where Spamalot sputtered after fourteen months; Hairspray limped from the Luxor (four months), and The Producers perished at Paris (12 months) – whereas the ABBA musical spectacle, Mamma Mia! closed after a record-breaking run (almost six years) at Mandalay Bay and Phantom has entered its fifth year.

What’s a Vegas producer to do to encourage the craps crowd to see some theatre? Tony Awards won’t bring them in, reviews won’t bring them in, TV stars won’t bring them in, and, based on the four aforementioned short-runners, musicals with gay sensibilities certainly won’t bring them in. Producers have substantially chopped down a show’s running time in an attempt to appease the TV-trained Vegas audiences, but doing so not only risks the integrity of the show (Phantom), it may also offend theatre purists – and you do not want to mess around with a theatre queen and the power of the blogosphere.

The Wynn decorated city cabs in orange fuzz to sell Avenue Q, but if the show doesn’t have recognizable tunes (Jersey Boys does) or is not familiar (Phantom is), the advertising would need sensationalism: no doubt infamous Broadway producer David Merrick would have had the paparazzi photograph a puppet in an uncompromising position at a chicken ranch. Unfortunately for Vegas, Merrick (the “abominable showman”) no longer exists. There is no way that Merrick would have cast John O’Hurly in Spamalot, Tony Danza in The Producers, or Harvey Fierstein in Hairspray. He would have cast Cher, Bette, or (shudder) Celine. If you’re smirking right now, you don’t know Merrick.

When Phantom–The Las Vegas Spectacular opened in Vegas, the conventional wisdom was that a show longer than ninety-five minutes could not survive, as that was the attention span of the mid-west gambler (those who left the slots to take in an excessive show to shake off the other excesses of Vegas). Therefore, original director Hal Prince and producer Cameron Mackintosh guillotined what little story there was in the original to present us the Venetian Production. Well, you can change the name of Kentucky Fried Chicken to KFC, but it still feels the same when you’re done eating it. Welcome to the world of fast food theatre.

The original book was filled with story loopholes that audiences were quick to forgive. Puffery won out over prose as the public flocked to the production for its sheer technical wizardry, romanticism and luxuriant melodies. Indeed, opaque references in the original script that may have at least hinted at an organized narrative (such as the Phantom’s back-story) have been removed in this version; Prince and Mackintosh had the opportunity here to flesh out characters; instead, they abandoned disambiguation and concentrated on technology.

The story, for those three people who don’t know, involves a facially disfigured man who lives in the tunnels below a Paris Opera House. He is so smitten with Christine, a young ingénue, that he hypnotizes her, teaches her to sing, and threatens the new owners and opera stars with disaster if his own opera is not performed with his beloved in the lead. In his warped mind, he believes this will make her marry him. Raoul, a childhood friend of Christine’s, sees her in a performance and decides that he is the one for her, which only infuriates the phantom more. Interestingly, after Raoul becomes engaged to Christine, the Phantom kills innocent stagehands instead of the swarthy lothario – one of the multitudinous head-scratching story holes in Phantom.

Even though there is some of the finest Broadway talent in the Phantom Theatre, we really know little about these characters; they are cardboard cutouts of stock figures: Anthony Crivello is dynamic as Phantom, the poor-neglected-boy turned tortured monster; the luminous Kristi Holden is Christine, his helpless, hypnotized student; wonderful singer Andrew Ragone is the humpy hero, Raoul (and Ragone has the chest…er, I mean bravado to prove it), and Joan Sobel is the pompous Diva, Carlotta – Sobel has a very pretty voice but lacks imperiousness.

Entering the theatre made me gasp almost as much as the revelation that this trifle of a libretto has blossomed into a world-wide phenomenon; we are actually in a decaying Paris Opera House (theatre design by David Rockwell) where an auctioneer is bidding off antiquities; soon, the sides of the house seem to melt away and the Opera House is transformed to its former glory; a shattered chandelier seemingly reconstructs itself and floats above our heads to the center of the theatre. We are surrounded by theatre boxes filled with finely costumed mannequins that watch the spectacle with us.

On stage, the show’s backdrops are so beautiful that they could hang in a museum; the costumes are beaded and brocaded with intricate finery (production design by Maria Bjornson), and Andrew Bridge’s lighting almost breathes with impressionistic artistry. Yes, this is easily the most visually sumptuous Broadway production ever seen, yet the gorgeous trappings contribute no more emotional impact to the experience than the Hope Diamond would to one of the mannequins above our heads. And ultimately, this spectacle, like the phantom himself, is merely a specter.

Phantom blew my mind – but it missed my heart.

Jersey Boys, the story of pop sensation Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, is a triumph, and the Vegas production leaves the touring production at the shore. The success of Jersey Boys is no fluke: yes, it has recognizable tunes, but it also achieves that which has eluded many modern musicals: a strong book. (If we look at the musicals which have stood the test of time, those which have been the most produced – even in high schools – have sturdy, well-constructed librettos, such as Oklohoma!, Fiddler on the Roof, Once Upon A Mattress, and Little Shop of Horrors.)

Credit Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice with dialogue that is fresh, fierce, and funny. Being that Jersey is in the title, you can bet the F-word is tossed around frequently, but it doesn’t offend because the cussing, instead of being gratuitous, is generated by character. Four Seasons composer Bob Gaudio originally had the idea to concoct a story and throw songs at it (much like Mamma Mia!), but Brickman and Elice (who have both recently been contracted to scribe the movie version) do not just plop down a hit song arbitrarily; instead, they create a dramatic arc by using the song as a cap to each chapter of the phenomenal story – which involves the mob, the record industry, and what constitutes true friendship. Brickman and Elice, with suggestions from director Des McAnuff, use a Rashomon-like, four-narrator structural device along with sentimentalism and nostalgia; they also include the Achilles’ heel of each group member.

So when a song appears, it has that one-two punch of surprise and nostalgia that creates goose-flesh and moistened eyes for the audience. It is that rare commodity in the theatre: audience members moving to the music (even clapping) while they remain riveted to the story. It’s all so friggin’ believable, you know what I mean?

The first act is like a non-stop Boardwalk carnival ride (sans dizziness): we watch the boys go from a corner singing group to pop phenom. As Frankie Valli, Travis Cloer is a singing phenomenon unto himself; he magically assumes the famous Valli falsetto but with a hearty chest-tone (Rick Faugno alternates with Cloer). Devin May so embodies Tommy DeVito, the gang leader with his gravel-voiced, Jersey demeanor, that one would never recognize him as the title character from Bat Boy.  John Salvatore offers up a stern and swishy Bob Crewe, producer and lyricist for the boy band (although the show considerably downplays his writing contributions). Peter Saide (as composer Bob Gaudio) and Jeff Leibow (as fellow band-mate Nick Massi) contribute authentic performances and astounding voices.

The creators are brave by taking a risk in Act Two, as much of the hyperactivity of the first act gives way to the story, told in a more straight-forward fashion. The collection of talent is formidable: actors not only sing with distinction, play musical instruments, and move with fluidity, but they handle the dramatic moments well. A nod to McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo as you can not tell where the direction stops and the dancing begins.

Howell Binkley’s lights add the element of spectacle without overpowering us; Klara Zieglerova’s set of chain-link, light grids, metal poles, and fiber-optic screens makes one wonder if Elvis is about to come out singing, “Jail House Rock.” (Perhaps that and the fact that part of the show takes place in Vegas add to the appeal of seeing this show in Vegas.)

Jersey Boys appears to have all the ingredients necessary for a show to thrive in Vegas – it feels vital, young and healthy.

Phantom appeared at a time when Vegas threatened to become a theatrical old folk’s home: just as an established show found its legs to be a bit wobbly, Vegas, it was hoped, would be the life support to keep it going: Quick, doctor, cut the running time, cut touring expenses, trim some numbers, pump up the pyrotechnics and…CLEAR!  All we can do now is stand back and see if the patient survives much longer.

tonyfrankel @ stageandcinema.com

Jersey Boys photos by Isaac Brekken
Phantom photos by Joan Marcus and Isaac Brekken

Jersey Boys on open end run
for tickets to Jersey Boys, visit http://www.jerseyboysinfo.com/vegas/

Phantom scheduled to close on September 2, 2012
for tickets to Phantom, visit http://www.phantomlasvegas.com/

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