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'Jersey Boys'

by Toba Singer

December 10, 2006 -- Curran Theater, San Francisco

Oh what a night! The trained ear could detect the accents of Jersey men and women who crowded around the lobby booth where the Jersey Boys sweatshirts were on sale.  “Ooy wuhnt wahn foor moy hesbend: He weers a soyze foorty-foower” [translation: “I want one for my husband; he wears a size 44”], a woman said to the concessionaire.

Devoid of a curtain, the first set consists of parallel chain link fences, with a catwalk above and stairs on either side. It’s a grey world that recapitulates Bayonne, where, like the theater, there is no orchestra pit. Two inverted steel U-shaped structures support stage lights that help create a harsh dappling, thanks to lighting designer Howell Binkley.  It’s a cross between a school and a prison yard.

Hard piano chords open stomp music and the first cast members appear.  Hey, wait!  These guys look gangsta in their hoodies and oversized pants.  The shoulder shimmying, head-dipping, stage-skipping choreography by Sergio Trujillo looks gangsta, too.  Can you spell A-N-A-C-H-R-O-N-I-S-M? The show is subtitled “The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons.”  Back in their day, “gangster” looked more like it was spelled!

This turns out to be that short helping of shock and awe dissonance that grabs our attention and hotwires our brain to pay close attention to what comes next: three mikes emerge from below the stage floor. Walking to them are our guys: actor/dancer/musicians and vocalists, Erich Bergen, Michael Ingersoll, and Deven May, who will soon be joined by Christopher Kale Jones playing the role of Frankie Valli when he is introduced to the other three and the audience by Joey (Pesci). Rick Faugno plays the hyper-talkative impresario-turned-actor with perfect pitch.

As the story of the Four Seasons’ history unfolds (there’s even a joke about Vivaldi having first dibs on the name), Roy Lichtenstein-inspired panels descend from above. The panels denote which season of their career the action onstage represents. The clever but modest sets by Klara Zieglerova leave plenty of extra money in the budget for the multiple costume (Jess Goldstein, designer) changes that we see.  From sharkskin suits over hot pink shirts, to lapels dipped in glitter, to retro layered-look shirts, these actors must keep six dressers each busy in the wings!

The timeline of their efforts to break into the music business and stay on top is demarcated by renderings of their chart buster hits: “Silhouettes,” “Oh What a Night,” “Earth Angel,” “Sherry,” “Dawn,” etc. The play list is awesome, and printed in the program is the remainder of their discography, for which there is no time in a show that runs nearly three hours – though under the direction of Des McAnuff, it flies right by.

In affirmation of the famous quote by Balzac, “Behind every great fortune there is a crime” the “Boys” start out as small time B&E (Breaking and Entering) thieves, who finesse their “earnings” into capital for their demos.  Tommy DeVito, played by May, explains that there are only three ways to escape the grayscale of Belleville, New Jersey: The army, getting “mobbed up,” or becoming a star.  What isn’t said, but is certainly shown, is that becoming a star via the music business is pretty much tantamount to getting “mobbed up.” The boys fight their way into the recording agents’ offices at 1619 Broadway in New York, and finally “connect,” thanks to a flamboyant young man  named Bob Crewe (played with scrupulous specificity by John Altieri) who won’t record a note until they come up with a true potential hit. That hit is “Sherry.” 

Life on the road undoes life at home: There are vigs to be paid to a Louie-the-Leg-Breaker-type loan shark, girls on the side, time for fathering, but not fatherhood, and kids O.D.ing on drugs – the familiar catalogue of ills that befalls anyone who harbors the illusion that one’s past can be shrugged off the back of one’s celebrity.  Eventually “The Road” proves fatal to the group’s continuity, and everyone goes his separate way. They are reunited later in life when they receive a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Award, which they hold in common as their highest achievement.

The dancing is spare, and the choreography mostly recaps the moves done on “American Bandstand” back when I watched it: the Mashed Potatoes, Pony, Frug, Twist, and Bump.  There is a moment when the Frankie Valli character gives us an unsteady jazz soutenu turn that goes into a knee slide, and you gotta hand it to the guy because he’s back on his feet singing in three octaves when he stands back up.

The audience shrieked with delight, humming to the Bob Gaudio-composed tunes played by an onstage band featuring drummer Mark Papazian, and conducted by Andrew Wilder.  A special opening night treat was the onstage appearance of the surviving original Four Seasons members (including Valli) during the curtain call. 

Be an Earth Angel and give the show’s soundtrack to your House and Hip Hopped-up friends for the holidays, and they will love you tomo-o-rrOW!

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