Theater Review: JERSEY BOYS (2017-18 National Tour)

by Tony Frankel on May 19, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

Post image for Theater Review: JERSEY BOYS (2017-18 National Tour)

JERSEY CASH COW

Jersey Boys, the terrific 2004 jukebox musical inspired by the story of pop sensation Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, is one of the greatest triumphs in Broadway history, spawning a spate of companies around the globe and a slew of national tours. So what’s a producer to do since the Broadway production closed up shop last January after 4,642 performances? Why, another national tour of course. And for good measure, why not add Mark Ballas, who left his popular gig on Dancing with the Stars to play Frankie Valli on Broadway just before it closed.

The success of Jersey Boys is no fluke: yes, it has recognizable tunes (“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man”) but it also achieves that which has eluded many modern musicals: a strong libretto. 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-bomb is tossed around frequently, but it doesn’t offend because the cussing, instead of being gratuitous, is generated by character.

Brickman and Elice 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, one which involves the mob, the record industry, and the stuff that constitutes true friendship. The creators use a Rashomon-like structural device, utilizing four narrators, each of whom has his own Achilles’ heel.

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 theater: audience members moving to the music (even clapping) while they remain riveted to the story. It’s all so friggin’ awesome, you know what I mean?

Shockingly, due in part to the casting of Ballas, this tour—which starts in L.A. before heading to regions beyond well into 2018—isn’t a bigger and better Jersey Boys, unlike the grand slam outing in Las Vegas, which closed last year after an eight-year run. No—this is a production that rests on its laurels. I have to wonder if original director Des McAnuff even oversaw this shoulder-shrugger at all because it’s like watching a faded mimeograph of a once-treasured work of art. No doubt the show triumphs because the superior staging and boffo book complement some of the most listenable pop/rock music of the last half century. Given that, some who have never seen it before may just love it (indeed, the audience at last night’s opening roared and screamed as if it were—and I ain’t kidding—The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show).

Unfortunately, Ballas is miscast as Valli. This demanding role (which needs two Frankie alternates—Aaron de Jesus and Miguel Jarquin-Moreland) requires someone who excels in singing and acting, but the producers brought on a guy whose thing is dancing. And the Four Seasons weren’t dancers! They used simplistic, synchronized moves (faithfully recreated by Sergio Trujillo); so when Ballas starts spinning like an audition for the Bolshoi Ballet, it doesn’t make sense. But it’s his vocals that truly mystify. Valli had a strong falsetto that never wavered between head and chest tones; Ballas struggles to find that balance and ends up sounding fine on some notes, then flat or screechy or irresolute or scoop-y with strange vowel formations. And his melody can be drowned out by his fellow actors’ harmony (the bad vocal blend isn’t helped by turning Steve Canyon Kennedy’s original sound design into a muddy, unbalanced mess; oh, these tours).

And while Ballas lacks acting chops, at least he doesn’t come off like many of the very talented performers who, lacking direction and a dialect coach, are caricatures instead of authentic people, especially the nasally women. (My friend rightfully said this felt more like Guys & Dolls in style than Jersey Boys.) Those who have visited the Boys before are hereby advised to check your discernment at the door.

The first act is like a non-stop Boardwalk carnival ride as we watch the boys go from a corner singing group to pop phenom. With a strict Jersey demeanor, Matthew Dailey physically embodies Tommy DeVito, the gang leader with a money problem, but I found him oddly unthreatening. Cory Jeacoma (as composer Bob Gaudio) and a fantastic Keith Hines (as fellow band-mate Nick Massi) contribute the most believable performances, with Hines being the most distinctive. Instead of effeminate and stern, Barry Anderson offers up a softer and swishier Bob Crewe, producer and lyricist for the boy band (the show considerably downplays Crewe’s writing contributions).

The creators took a second act risk that pays off: Much of the hyperactivity of the first act gives way to the story, told in a more straight-forward fashion. And because there are far fewer songs, the show really excels in Act II, even in this watered down revival. The story moves with such pace and inevitability that the viewer might not recognize how beautifully the show is staged, each scene dovetailing into the next with the unobtrusive exit and entrance of props propelled by members of the ensemble, who also play musical instruments and move with fluidity.

The staging features Klara Ziegerova’s skillful use of metal stairs leading to a balcony-like gangway that stretches across the rear of the stage. Illustrations that resemble Roy Lichtenstein comic strip panels enliven the show’s visual impact, but there’s a problem here: Howell Binkley’s original projections have given way to a digital screen, which is not only distractingly blinding, it feels anachronistic.

The real heroes here are Brickman (Annie Hall) and Elice (Peter and the Starcatcher), who created a book that is funny, dramatic, informative, and engrossing. And as with Beautiful, the Carole King bio-musical, the string of timeless hits is jaw-droppingly extensive. Even though the juicy show is cut-and-dried here—and frankly reprehensible for its sound and vocal issues—I still believe that this fiercely original piece transcends the conventions of the jukebox musical and can safely reside in the ranks of the very best of the new millennium.

photos by Jim Carmody and Jeremy Daniel

Jersey Boys
2017-18 national tour
presented by Center Theatre Group
Music Center’s Ahmanson Theatre
135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles
ends on June 24, 2017
for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or visit CTG
tour scheduled through June, 2018
for dates and cities, visit Jersey Boys

Leave a Comment