(Fisher Theatre, Detroit, MI - December 19th, 2009)
Essentially, 'Jersey Boys' is the story of how four blue-collar kids became one of the greatest successes in pop music history. They wrote their own songs, invented their own sounds and sold 175 million records worldwide – all before they were thirty!
That said, and with nearly three dozen songs that hit the top of the charts decades ago (and yet still remain sing-along favorites), this riveting portrayal of the lives of Franki Valli and The Four Seasons goes way deeper than simply being a tribute band night out.
Sung (initally) in French, the story unfolds to the backdrop of 'Ces Soirees-La' = 'December 1963 (Oh What A Night)' before the nights main narrative is brought forth by Tommy DeVito (Matt Bailey). It's then, as we listen in on his tales of the rise and fall of The Four Seasons, that we quickly realize just what the band, and its members went through back in the '60s.
The tidy art of DeVito's storytelling reveals that it was he himself who discovered Francesco Stephen Castelluccio (aka Frankie Valli, played brilliantly by Joseph Leo Bwarie) and brought him into the group one night. It was he who taught the kid about the two types of women ("Type A and Type B"), and that it was he also that persuaded the boy wonder to join them on his first jewelry store heist; that, of course, went wrong!
Indeed, a lot of time was spent behind bars for various members of The Four Seasons, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi,
but in DeVito, the felony-addicted Jersey Boy they had a parentally-minded driving force quite like no other to keep the group together.
"My hand to God" (as founder DeVito might say), this stage show is packed with musical wonderments and personal revealments that, well, even I didn't know anything about! Castelluccio (showcasing Bwarie's fluid falsetto) makes his debut as a core member of the band at The Silhouette Club, but it's at Mangio's Pizza where Frankie Castelluccio became Frankie Valli ("... with an I not a Y"!).
A fake killing to try and extort money from a young, naive Valli is next (but be warned, this scene contains high doses of dark profanity throughout - not for the kids!), followed by more name changes - The Four Lovers, The Wonder Who? - but it's when the band is introduced to Bob Gaudio (Josh Franklin) by none of other than (later-to-be-famous-actor) Joe Pesci, that the bands musical backbone becomes solidified. For the 15 year-old boy who had co-written the hit '(Who Wears) Short Shorts' as a member of the Royal Teens in '58 was a lyrical genius.
As the backdrop of early group arrangements and single wannabes accompany their every move - 'You're The Apple Of My Eye,' 'Earth Angel,' 'My Mother's Eyes,' 'I Go Ape,' etc. - the band go through a self-doubting phase; until suddenly a song that comes out of nowhere by Gaudio takes them to the top of the charts and onto American Bandstand - 'Sherry.' And the way they show this 'filmed' on stage is incredible and a definite highlight of the night.
The fast-paced show then gives us the origins of their next hits, 'Big Girls Don't Cry' and 'Walk Like A Man,' before (and weirdly, as it is the only time it is sung during the night, and only by Gaudio, and only a third of it at that!) 'December 1963 (Oh What A Night)' is brought forth. The Angels' with 'My Boyfriend's Back' is a nice '60s Vegas visual touch before the break-up of Valli's marriage ('My Eyes Adored You') is revealed.
But, as the groups flamboyant producer, Bob Crewe (Jonathan Hadley), a legendary music-business showman who throws out astrological proclamations like candy, it's definitely his help that creates hit song after hit song for the band. Nothing more so than when the Four Seasons (now finally named after the witnessing of an old bowling alley sign coming to life with its own real name!) go on the Ed Sullivan show and perform amidst the British Invasion, 'Dawn (Go Away)' to a studio of screaming young teens.
Culminating that performance with their backs to us, leaving us blinded by the huge studio lights they endured back then, the boys took their TV bow in some strikingly-visual style. But then, to the faint reprise of 'Walk Like A Man' the story's dark side comes back, as the band is given the news that DeVito owes the bookies $150,000.00!
The seamlessly-directed production restarts with some pop-art inspired backdrop projections (by Michael Clark) and to the musical vibes of 'Big Man In Town.' The band get arrested for an outstanding $120.00 hotel bill from days gone by, and Detroit gets a personal shout out - as Valli falls in love with a local newspaper reporter, Lorraine (Alterman). 'Beggin' is sung at a club to a local mobster (one on their side, luckily) to ask for his help in getting DeVito out of the monetary mess he is in, but all he can do is get the loan payment delayed, sending DeVito to Vegas to be watched over!
Taking on their shoulders DeVito's $150,000.00 bookie debt and the $500,000.00 tax lien, the band reduces down to just two members (Gaudio now leaves) under the monetary weight. Together with Nick Massi (original cast member, Steve Gouveia - a musician who stereotypes himself as "the Ringo" of the group!), Valli then gets a couple more songs out before Massi also quits the band (for personal/selfish reasons). Vallie recruits a whole new backing band and changes the group officially to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, hence the first song they record, 'Opus 17 (Don't You Worry 'Bout Me).'
With no medleys in sight, yet some classic songs cut way too short for a devoted audience, we next witness the break down of Valli's relationship with his daughter, Francine ('Bye Bye Baby'). With worse news on the front to follow soon enough, the band take new song 'C'mon Marianne' high into the charts. But it's a highly notable turn at the Roostertail (Detroit) that provides an all-important role in this story, as their wonderful 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You' finally breaks; bringing the band one of their finest chart moments ever!
But, with trouble brewing on the home front, Valli goes back home ('Working My Way Back To You') to confront his ex-wife about their daughter - but, after a an all-too-quick phone call with Francine, a hot moment later and she is found dead of an overdose. 'Fallen Angel' is one of the most incredibly sung, acted moments of the night; the powerful scene still bringing a tear to my eye writing this.
The Four Seasons (original group members, 1960–1965) were then inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, singing 'Rag Doll' for the occasion. Admitting that none of them would have guessed they'd still be together some 40 years on, they each reveal what they have subsequently done: DeVito now works for Pesci; Gaudio loves his boating; Massi passed away on Christmas Eve 2000 ("... for a Catholic, is that style or what?" - DeVito); and Valli himself, well, he is still out there singing and doing what he loves the most - entertaining.
And so, to the full company group ensemble piece, 'Who Loves You,' everyone comes out, takes their bow, and with the entire stage lit up like a Christmas Tree, we finally say goodnight to a musical that, even after all this time, just seems unstoppable.
And, on a personal note, I'm sure a very special now-passed-away Auntie of mine loved every second of the show, from her seat next to me.
Review by: Russell A. Trunk