Friday, November 19, 2010

Jersey Boys: You Won't Be Drowsy

In 2006 a musical opened on Broadway called The Drowsy Chaperone.
The show was a love letter to musicals of the Jazz Age but it also examined the effect that Broadway musicals have on their most ardent fans. It featured a clever set-up and an ingratiating show-within-a-show. With an original story and original music, the show won raves from the New York critics and delighted discerning theater-goers. It went on to win Tony Awards for Best Score and Best Book of a Musical. And justifiably so.
But The Drowsy Chaperone did not win the Tony for Best Musical.
That year the Tony Award went to a show that was a love-letter to a rock 'n roll group. The show also examined the lives of the group members and the effect that the group and its music had on the fans. The show was called Jersey Boys.
I loved The Drowsy Champerone on Broadway. It was one of the funniest, most inventive Broadway musicals I've ever seen.
But I'd never gotten around to seeing Jersey Boys -- until last night when I caught a national touring production in Philadelphia.
Unless you've been living in a cave for nearly five years you know that the Jersey Boys of the title are The Four Seasons and later (and more specifically) Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. So, the music is the music of The Four Seasons and the story is a story of four Jersey Italian-American street kids who began singing on a corner under a street lamp.
To call the characters stereotypes would be an understatement. To call the whole narrative an extended show business cliche would be nothing less than accurate.
So, why does Jersey Boys succeed? Why is it still a hot, hot ticket on Broadway? Why is it still drawing huge audiences and making big bucks while The Drowsy Chaperone has long since closed? Why has it become an international sensation?
Four main reasons:
1) The music: These songs are pre-certified, solid gold hits. Whether you were an original Four Seasons fan or not (I was not) the music endures. It's been pounded into you. The songs are simple, catchy and (now) evocative. You can't get away from them.
2) The staging: The first act of the show moves like clockwork. And since you're expecting a jukebox show, the story not only surprises you but it delays the recognizable songs so long that by the time the cast delivers the first big hit number, you're craving it so bad you can't wait to start clapping and cheering. By the time the first act ends with blinding white hot lights and a full stage reversal, you've been stunned into submission.
3) The singing. The productions of this show are very well-managed. So, the four lead character/singers are really good singers. Really good. In Philly the role of Frankie Valli is played by Joseph Leo Bwarie and he is sensational. Who knew there were so many guys who could sing and feign really good North Jersey accents? And who knew there were so many little guys who could reach those Frankie Valli high notes? Beyond that, Bwarie gives depth and strength to the Valli character. He takes a role that could have been a paper cutout and makes it so real, so three-dimensional that you're sure you know this guy or knew someone like him somewhere along the way.
4) The generational thing. The generation that embraced The Four Seasons never really had a show of their own quite like this. Many of them were part of an in-between generation. They got lost somewhere between Elvis (the earlier days or rock 'n roll) and The Beatles (the later, more socially-conscious days). They had nothing to cling to -- no show, no anthem, no legacy, nothing beyond nostalgia. Now, they have it. And they love it. They keep coming back to see Jersey Boys again and again. They can't get enough of it.
I never knew the story of The Four Seasons. In fact, I was surprised that this show even had a story. And I guess I never understood how important this music was (and still is) to huge numbers of people.
I sort of expected the show to be a rapid-fire series of songs strung together by a bit of patter here and there. But that's not what it is at all.
Instead, it's a sort of pop morality tale.
Still, it's not a profound story. And the Joizee stereotypes and Italian-American stereotypes don't help to make the libretto any more meaningful or memorable. Regrettably (except for the more well-defined characters of Frankie and Bob) they trivialize an instructive, real-life journey.
But, no matter. In the end, the music, the singing, the staging and the generational pull clearly triumph.  
Jersey Boys demands your attention.

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