Photograph by: Joan Marcus , ¬©2011 Joan Marcus
June 28 – July 15, 2012
Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium
Listen to my live review on CBC’s Eyeopener on Tuesday July 3 at 7:40 http://www.cbc.ca/eyeopener/
My feeling is that when it comes to reviewing Jersey Boys, it’s better to get the cranky critic stuff out of the way right off the top so I can go on to tell you why the 2006 Tony-Award winning musical is such a beloved and enduring hit.
The musical, which employs a straightforward biographical approach to the story of The Four Seasons (Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi and Frankie Valli), who topped the charts in the ’60s with songs like Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, December 1963 (Oh What a Night), Ragdoll and Walk Like a Man, is an incredibly poor example of insight storytelling. As in, there is no insight. Instead Jersey Boys presents what some have labeled a “shrink-wrapped” narrative or as I call it, flash-card story-telling, that plays out for about two and a half hours in a, “this happened, then that happened, then this happened, let’s sing” kind of format with very few true dramatic moments. You get the top notes of the story, but it’s a Cole’s Notes version at best.
Not once do we really get inside the heads of the boys – how did they deal emotionally with their rise to fame, what motivated them to get there in the first place and how do they deal with becoming the inevitable has beens? Nor do we get any illuminating details about the process that allowed them to create those memorable songs or that signature sound. All things that I really wanted to know and I think would have made Jersey Boys more than just a vehicle for what is essentially an exercise in big production karaoke.
But oh what amazing karaoke it is! And this is where as a critic I have no choice but to put my cynical pen down and admit that whatever narrative failings Jersey Boys has, the music and more importantly the singing performances are thoroughly outstanding.
Beginning from when the band first started to assemble, Jersey Boys divides up the narrative between the four members so each can tell his side of the story. But regardless of who is doing the talking, the music is the real star of the show. And with thirty-three numbers jam-packed into the performance, there is no shortage of swooning, heart-soaring exhilarating musical moments. Jukebox musicals such as Jersey Boys (where none of the songs are original) have often been accused of relying solely on the strength of the familiar music and nostalgia factor to be a success. No doubt this is part of the allure of the production, but to say that this performance of Jersey Boys rested solely on its musical laurels would be to do an unforgivable injustice to the four performers who step into The Four Seasons’ shoes.
Preston Truman Boyd as Bob Gaudio, Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi and John Gardiner as Tommy DeVito may not be the best actors you’ve ever seen (the men played stereotypes rather than characters), but wow can they sing. However, as with most pop bands, the real draw is usually the lead singer and this show is no exception. The pitch-perfect and stunningly powerful falsetto singing of Joseph Leo Bwarie as frontman Frankie Valli, goes way beyond nostalgia or simple impersonation and instead delivers a crowd-roaring performance that feels both personal as well as reverential. Singing most of the show’s thirty three songs, Bwarie rips through the impossibly high notes with breathtaking ease and offers up song after song of high energy Doo-Wop mastery.
It’s exactly what the crowd comes for and the reason the entire audience at the Jubilee stood on their feet cheering at the close of the show. They were not thinking about the passably efficient rather than interesting direction by Des McAnuff. They were not thinking about the pedestrian-looking catwalk-cum-fire-escape minimalist set design by Klara Zieglerova. They were not thinking about the atrociously written and performed scenes when Bob loses his virginity or when Frankie learns of his daughter’s death by overdose. They were thinking about the music. Some perhaps about what those songs meant to them back in the day. Some maybe hearing it for the first time. But either way, if judged purely on the songs and singing performances, the standing ovation was well-earned.
Me? I like my pop concerts to be pop concerts and my theatre experiences to offer something more. So yes, cranky critic to the end, I remained seated.
For the guys – As far as musicals go, it’s a fairly masculine one. The Four Seasons were blue-collar guys, some with mob connections, and all with eyes for the ladies. The singing is big and the music is great. MAYBE SEE IT
For the girls – It’s not because they’re guys that you’ll have a hard time connecting with these characters – it’s because the show gives you nothing to relate to. This plus all the female characters are either tramps or whiny nags. Still, what a songbook and what voices! MAYBE SEE IT
For the occasional theatre goer – I can’t recommend this enough to you. It’s an easy to follow story with some fluffy laughs along the way and the music and singers will blow your socks off. A perfectly fun night in the theatre. SEE IT
For the theatre junkie – If you love the music so much that you’ll forgive the show’s many failings then perhaps you’ll enjoy. But make no mistake, good theatre this isn’t. MAYBE SEE IT