Jersey Boys (2006) is not only the best jukebox musical ever created, but also the best musical, other than Hamilton, of the 21st century. There is no show so slick, so lovable, so inventive. How could it miss with its resonant raft of hit tunes from the Four Seasons that sends us back to our youth with such unerring precision and easy allure? We are whisked back to drive-in movies, barbecue joints, high school proms, and steamy make-out sessions under the football stadium. For boomers, this is our music, and this is our show. It's catnip.
As we know, a jukebox musical is an ersatz form of musical theater, yet a producer's dream. Find a beloved feel-good song catalog – Beatles, Abba, Beach Boys, Jimmy Buffett, Peter Allen, '50s doo-wop á la Roger Bean – and then shoehorn a story around the music. Built-in nostalgia. The song rights might be expensive, but it's a whole lot less risky than commissioning an original score.
The hard part, of course, is getting the story right. No matter how good, songs out of context are still songs out of context. Placing them within a dramatic framework is mighty tricky. Instead of plopping songs into a plot that was never meant to hold them, writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice take the path of least resistance – and most brilliant – they take the songs and present them chronologically to tell the story of the rise of the Four Seasons. It is simple, elegant, and sublimely dexterous. With some poetic license, the songs fit in the order they were recorded. This interweaving of song and plot is so right and true, you might wonder why no one has ever thought of this before. That's why Jersey Boys is so good and packs such a wallop. It's sophisticated in its story telling with a structure that is unbelievably solid. And, of course, the songs are first class.
Backstagers since the classic A Star is Born to Dreamgirls follow a definite pattern. You can tick off plot points in your sleep – self-doubt, infidelity, jealousy, money problems, unscrupulous managers, unbridled ego. Jersey Boys is more the same, but its ace is the boys themselves. These talented petty hoods, blending their voices under a streetlamp in rust belt New Jersey, are so patently adorable that we root for their success from the beginning. As we're warned before entering the Hobby that there is an abundance of “profane Jersey vocabulary,” these tarnished angels have our attention from the get-go. Whatever they do, we're on their side.
Essentially Frankie's story, all four of the quartet narrate the tale, adding pieces to each other's puzzle. Everybody gets a say, and this cohesion among the guys is an unwritten theme of the show as are loyalty and keeping your word to your buddies. Excluding the great songs, these old-fashioned values go a long way in making the show so appealing, In spite of the in-fighting and obstacles to be overcome on the march to the top of the charts, this is a very “up” show – another of its many charms.
Director Des McAnuff, who's led the show since its inception at California's La Jolla Playhouse, keeps it moving with the sleekness of a Top 10 DJ. Nothing slows down, least of all the spirited boy band moves stylishly choreographed with a wink by Sergio Trujillo. To keep focus, the set's minimal, just a looming grid work, some chain-link fencing and background factory silhouette to evoke a worn-out Jersey, and a neon bar sign or the like flying in to designate place. To set the '60s mood, some Roy Lichtenstein cartoon panels drop by.
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The touring quartet is outstanding. Cory Grennan, as petty gangsster Tommie, titular leader of the group, is gruff and macho; Michael Milton, as Nick Massi, is unassuming until pushed too hard; Eric Chambliss is a suave and sleek Bob Gaudio, the group's ace songwriter; and Jon Hacker, with splendid falsetto pipes, sings like a xerox copy of Frankie Valli.
When this all-American Fab Four blend their voices and strut in place for “Big Man in Town,” Dawn,” Working My Way Back to You,” “Let's Hang On,” or any of the other 30-some hits from the Four Seasons, the American musical doesn't get any better.
There are only four performances left. Go now and experience the best of Broadway. Oh what a night, indeed!
Jersey Boys continues through February 9 at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Hobby Center, 800 Bagby. For information, call 713-315-2525 or visit thehobbycenter.org or boradwayatthehobbycenter.com. $40-$95.