Has there ever been a musical filled with such elation and instant, feel-good nostalgia as Jersey Boys? You can feel the excitement in the lobby; you feel the vibes pre-show, the audience is happy to be here. They're pumped to go back to their youth.
This is juke-box territory, that musical genre that cribs a group's or a composer's song catalog and then cobbles a story around the already popular hit tunes. There's built-in security to this type of show since the audience is so familiar with the songs; it already knows what it's going to get. Classic Gershwin? (Crazy For You), Carole King folk? (Beautiful), Peter Allen glitz? (The Boy From Oz), ABBA pop? (Momma Mia), Buddy Holly rock? (Buddy), Fats Waller snap and crackle? (Ain't Misbehavin'). The problem, of course, arises with the story. What tale will weave these tasteful madeleines of the mind into a book show?
Jersey Boys (2005) has an immense advantage going in. The eponymous boys happen to be Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, our own American Fab Four, and their catalog is ripe with No. 1 songs that define the baby boomer generation. For decades, the quartet, in some form or other, has been with us, their distinctive blend accompanying our very own history. The group is still performing, with Valli as its nominal lead, and their latest tour has bookings through spring 2017. The quartet is timeless, ageless, as is this ebullient Tony Award-winner from writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.
The authors go simple, practically elemental: they tell the guys' story from the beginning – singing under a New Jersey lamppost, finding their sound when preternatural Frankie Valli joins in with his powerhouse falsetto, and on through the usual showbiz cliches of rise, fall, and rise again. Internal conflicts within the group, infidelities, groupies, music industry intransigence, criminal ties, all get tossed in with such theatrical flair and know-how that the show glides as if lubed with Brilliantine. Interspersed, sometimes commenting on the action, are those prescient songs that lead us lovingly back into the past: drive-ins, proms, bowling alleys, sleazy clubs, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Jersey Boys is a primer on how to make a musical. Slick and glossy as directed by Des McAnuff with surprising moves of his own, this is musical theater making of the highest caliber.
The show is pure up. For, truly, what can go too wrong with the guys when we're wrapped in indelible melodies like “Silhouettes,” “Who Wears Short Shorts,” “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don't Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” My Eyes Adored You”? Even George Jessel's sentimental '20s chestnut “My Mother's Eyes,” sung to a blubbering crime boss for comic effect, is added into the joyful mix.
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For all the ups and downs of their journey, it's the boys themselves who hold the show's heart and our enjoyment. We like them all, root for them, even prickly Tommy (Matthew Dailey), who forms the quartet and is the questionable glue that keeps them together. Little Frankie (Aaron De Jesus with ethereal pipes) may be the star, but he's surrounded by fully-drawn supporting characters who also get to tell the quartet's story: Nick Massi (Keith Hines), who always threatens to leave the group but never does; songwriter deluxe Bob Gaudio (a delightfully spry Cory Jeacoma); lyricist Bob Crewe (Barry Anderson in urban fey mode); even a teen Joe Pesci (Jonny Wexler, all nerve endings). When seen at all, the women are mere accessories. As suffering wife, Kristen Paulicelli as Mary makes an impression with her “Joisey” accent, but there's not much there for her to play. This is the boys' story, first and foremost.
This touring production presented by Broadway at the Hobby, I believe the third time it's hit Houston, has all the swing and style of the Broadway original. Klara Zieglerova's minimal settings of nightclub neon, chain link fencing, and sunset-red factory smokestacks and telephone poles says all that needs to be said; Howell Binkley's laser lighting pin spots where necessary; Jess Goldstein's costumes cry '50s poodle skirts and sequined tuxedo coats; while Steve Orich's earful orchestrations and Sergio Trujillo's tongue-in-cheek choreography of the quartet's signature moves rounds out the fun.
A sign in the lobby warns patrons with a wink about gunshots and “Jersey vocabulary.” It would be just as accurate to state, “Good times await all who enter here.” Oh, what a night, indeed!
Jersey Boys. 7:30 p.m. November 17, 8 p.m. November 18, 2 and 8 p.m. November 19, 2 and 7:30 p.m. November 20. (Miguel Jarquin-Moreland portrays Frankie on the Saturday and Sunday matinees.) BBVA Compass Broadway at The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 800-952-6560 or visit houston.broadway.com. $35.50 to $160.50.