By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
The history of the jukebox musical is riddled with synthetic duds (like robbing a cash machine, and finding Monopoly money). The stand-outs that rise above are few and far between. Jersey Boys is one.
Judging by the Citadel production that opens this week, it remains irresistible, thrilling (and the sort of night out you’ve been waiting for).
The story, says one Tommy DeVito at the start of the musical that traces the rise and fall of the ‘60s pop group the Four Seasons, is really four versions of a story by four guys. But they all go back to the same starting point, “10,000 years ago…. And a few guys under a street lamp singing someone else’s latest hit.”
The thing that you’ve gotta love about Jersey Boys — besides that amazing string of (two dozen) irresistible No. 1 hits of course — is what sets it apart from its fellow jukebox musicals. It has one, a real story I mean. Not some cockamamie made-up narrative on which to hang a bunch of songs (Mamma Mia! I’m looking at you) or a bunch of songs just hot-glued together (We Will Rock You springs to mind).
And in Julie Tomaino’s deft Citadel production of the enduringly popular 2005 Tony Award-winning Broadway hit directed by the Canadian Des McAnuff (it ran for 12 years), you get an affecting story about dreams, unexpected success and the pitfalls of fame that’s as rough-edged as the close harmonies are smooth. Music biz clichés and all, it earns its songs. And these are delivered, in a captivating way, by a cast led by Farren Timoteo, Kale Penny, Devon Brayne and Jason Sakai as the four guys from the mean streets of blue-collar New Jersey who would become the Four Seasons — named after a Garden State bowling emporium.
Here’s an intriguing cultural phenom: at the crammed preview I was kindly allowed to attend this week, a sizeable student club brigade whose parents weren’t even born in the ‘60s, went nuts over Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like A Man, and the rest. Along with the all-ages crowd they roared their approval in an ovation that felt anything but dutiful. And that youthful response felt almost as cheering as the impromptu moment after a Jersey gig that an Italian street kid named Frankie Castellucio revealed his stratospheric range.
He’s played by Timoteo, a startlingly multi-talented and engaging Edmonton theatre artist — actor/ director/ playwright/ musician/ artistic director — who lands the signature style, with its distinctive falsetto swoops, in an uncanny way. It’s a performance that captures, too, a certain vulnerability, a genuine sense of wonder in making music, getting noticed, getting juiced by making an audience happy.
It’s a hard-scrabble Italian neighbourhood in the blasted wastelands of North Jersey that Tommy DeVito, thug-turned-musician-turned talent scout, introduces at the outset. Kyle Penny’s performance as the bad-ass Tommy, who takes full credit for discovering Frankie (“I’m the Michelangelo…”), is full of cocky swagger. There are three ways up and out of that scene, Tommy tells us. You can get arrested (he himself rotates in and out of Rahway), or get “mobbed up,” or … become a star.” All three are part of the pungent story of Jersey Boys.
Soon Frankie, hairdresser-to-be, would be Frankie Vally, married to a feisty Italian chick Mary Delgado (Daniela Fernandez) who tells him it has to be spelled Valli (“y is a bullshit letter and you’re Italian”). And, armed with close three-part harmony and that helium falsetto floating on top, along with the song-writing expertise of Bob Gaudio (Sakaki), the boys from Jersey would soon be singing their own hits. And the world would be singing Shereeee, Sherry baby right along with them.
The laconic bass player Nick Massi, played by Devon Brayne, tells another side of the story. And so does Gaudio, in Jason Sakaki’s performance a wry straight-shooter with a certain under-aged innocence about him. He has a built-in hype detector (“I’m a one-hit wonder again.”)
The trajectory is set forth, in smart, exposition-concealing fashion, by the joint librettists Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. To this, costume designer’s Leona Brausen’s vivid array of ‘60s frocks, bowling shirts and jackets is indispensable. The early scenes are full of vivid characters: tough-cookie women (there’s no shortage of outrageously inflated cartoon Joisy accents and bum-wiggling cartoon gaits in the ensemble), trips to “the Rahway Academy of the Arts” as Tommy puts it, Mob bosses (Sheldon Elter as Gyp DeCarlo) and lackeys (Billy Brown as Joe Pesci, yup, that Joe Pesci), loan collectors (Andrew MacDonald-Smith as Norm Waxman).
And amongst a selection of setbacks en route to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame — including “come back when you’re Black” and the struggle to get the airplay that underpinned recording — they meet record producer Bob Crewe. He’s played in style by Vance Avery, who claims ”the best ears in the business” and exhorts the lads to solve their identity crisis.
Act I is the climb to Top-40 stardom — tough guys doing sweet harmony — with a repertoire of impossibly contagious hits built into your ribcage, who move with that kooky but utterly signature boy group choreography of synchronized leans and bent arms (director Tomaino is the choreographer). It’s in Act II that Jersey Boys turns into the kind of jukebox musical where the songs are actually related to the story. Things are getting strained — money, promises broken, mob debts, domestic strife under the pressures of constant touring. Working My Way Back to You and Bye Bye Baby, for example, get additional resonance from being part of the storytelling. And Tomaino’s cast really bite into the crack that opens between performance and “real life.”
There’s sadness (and a perfunctory entrance by a Catholic priest) in the tragic story of Frankie’s daughter. And that wedding reception staple Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You, and especially the audience uproar it creates as Timoteo sings it, is a big moment in the story of a comeback after a slide, with the desperation that implies.
Brian Kenny’s impeccable sound design and a band led by Steven Greenfield, make the singular style happen before your very ears. The set, jointly credited to Gillian Gallow and Beyata Hackborn, is a metal grid and catwalk, that transforms from an evocation of industrial North Jersey to the flashing proscenium of concert performance.
And the Great Jukebox returns the band to Frankie Valli’s favourite moment, from the sadder-but-wiser perspective of years on the road: “four guys under a street lamp, when it was all still ahead of us.”
Jersey Boys: the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
Created by: Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (book), Bob Audio (music) Bob Crewe (lyrics)
Directed and choreographed by: Julie Tomaino
Starring: Farren Timoteo, Devon Brayne, Vance Avery, Kale Penny, Jason Sakaki, Daniela Fernandez, Sheldon Elter, Billy Brown, Samantha Currie, Andrew MacDonald-Smith
Running: through March 12
Tickets and info: 780-425-1820, citadeltheatre.com