Sunday, October 20, 2013

Joyful Jersey Boys hits all the right notes

"Jersey Boys" opened at the Marcus Center Wednesday. (PHOTO: Marcus Center)

It's kind of amazing that since its debut in 2005, "Jersey Boys" has yet to be adapted for the big screen. It's vibrant. It's infectiously fun. It's visually exciting and dynamic. And, most importantly, it wouldn't require Hollywood big wigs to strain their brains and come up with one of those dreaded "original ideas."

While there is an adaptation currently set for next year (Clint Eastwood is directing because ... sure, why not; it's gotta be better than "J. Edgar"), for the time being, "Jersey Boys" is stuck on the stage. But if the performance Thursday night at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts was any sign, it's doing just wonderfully staying on the stage.

After opening with a jarring French cover of "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" - apparently a real thing - the show tells of the tuneful exploits of the '60s rock band The Four Seasons. Pulling a page out of "Rashomon," each band member is given a different season to take over the narration and tell the story they way they remember it.

Tommy DeVito - played with just the right amount of cocky Jersey brashness by Nicolas Dromard - starts them all off with their origin story, a gaggle of guys trying to get a band together in between jail visits. He eventually discovers the angel-voiced Frankie Valli (Nick Cosgrove), takes the young talent under his somewhat protective wing and makes him the centerpiece of their fledgling band.

For a while, the group flits haplessly around with different names, identities and group members. With the help of Joe Pesci (yes, that Joe Pesci. And yes, he will amuse you and make you laugh), they finally come across the missing link: Bob Gaudio (Jason Kappus), a sweet teenaged songwriter with a hit - "Short Shorts" - already under his belt. The boys settle on a name - The Four Seasons - Gaudio takes over narration duties, and they're soon flying to stardom, dishing out hit ("Sherry") after hit ("Big Girls Don't Cry") after incredibly addictive hit ("Walk Like a Man").

The first act of "Jersey Boys" plays like greased lightning, fast-talking through plot points and zipping through musical numbers with an almost reckless abandon. It's borderline dangerous, with characters and payoffs potentially lost in the rush. Luckily, the show's energy is contagious, thanks in large part to the likeable cast and production's bright pop art style, from Jess Goldstein's costumes to Howell Brinkley's striking lighting schemes.

And then, of course, there's the music. The Four Seasons' hits are just as compulsively toe-tapping and fun as they were when they were first released nearly half a century ago. Each number is two to three minutes of slick, harmonious joy, performed with youthful vigor by the lead quartet. A Four Seasons musical needs to have a solid Frankie Valli, and the rubber-faced Cosgrove fits the bill. He's got the lovely crooner's voice down pat, and his falsetto suitably soars

Bands back in the day, including the Four Seasons, wouldn't likely be accused of having a particularly diverse catalog of sounds, so director Des McAnuff does a nice job of finding new and clever costume play on words ways to keep the performances fresh.

On a few numbers, the boys perform facing some cameras to the side of the stage, and the large video board backdrop plays the footage in grainy black-and-white TV footage. Another number has the boys with their backs to the crowd, playing in front of a black screen constantly flickering with popping camera bulbs. For the more traditional performances, the audience still gets that classic, wonderfully cheeky dance choreography.

Sometimes, it's just the small things or a perfect linking of music and story, like when Bob plays a song for the boys for the first time. It starts off as just him, but part by part, the rest of the band comes over and joins in seamlessly while bar patrons slowly get hooked by the tune. It's a sweet look at the creation of music and the way it happily infects others. It's one of the first act's few slower moments, as well as one of its finest.

After the first act, it'd be easy to dismiss "Jersey Boys" as a simple popcorn jukebox musical, a crowd-pleaser and that's all. Of course the band starts falling apart in the second act, with seemingly inoffensive vices and struggles coming to the surface (just once I'd like to see a music bio where a band becomes famous, and they're just really pleasant together and end up living totally happy lives. I suppose that'd be a really boring bio, though, so never mind).

Though it follows the musical biopic formula pretty comfortably, it still hits with a weighty emotional punch and a surprising amount of character. The songs are still great, hitting notes both poppy and souful. And when the band's bassist Nick Massi (Brandon Andrus) takes over the narration early in act two, it becomes clear that Andrus is quietly the show's star. He's both hilariously deadpan but also sadly wearied from years of reserved emotional angst and baggage, the price of being the quiet observer. It's a truly magnetic performance of few words but large payoff.

Even when things are predictably falling apart, "Jersey Boys" hits the right notes, both with the comedy and drama. It's sweet and earnest about the guys' love for the music, for performing, for life and for each other. The audience can't help but join in on the love fest.

"Jersey Boys" is running at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts through October 27. Visit the Marcus Center's website for more information on showtimes and tickets.
Source: Onmilwaukee

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