in the slickest and most exciting musical package Broadway has seen in months or maybe years, Des McAnuff's dynamic "Jersey Boys" opened Sunday night to breathe vibrant life into the format Broadway sophisticates decry as "the jukebox musical."
Jukebox? Thanks to a dazzling piece of conceptual direction, this cheerfully romanticized, shamelessly populist yet thoroughly rooted tale of singers Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons' rise to fame is a cash box. Of epic proportion and long duration. And -- make no mistake -- of considerable artistry.They'd better start digging more tunnels from
, because when word gets out on this thing, every Garden State wiseguy is going to be calling for a limo and adding to the traffic clog. McAnuff is working on the kind of populist turf some critical sophisticates often eschew or disdain. But this kind of thing is harder to pull off than a Sondheim revival, and he's going to snag audiences in droves.
Sure, "Jersey Boys" has no original numbers. Sure, it punches its familiar showbiz buttons with broad thematic jabs. But in an era littered with disastrous attempts to mine backlists -- shows with the "can't-fail" music of
all went on to fail spectacularly -- "Jersey Boys" now will function as the how-to manual for its much maligned genre.
Rule One? Get a decent book. Shrewdly penned by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, "Jersey Boys" makes the formulaic "Behind the Music" tale of Valli and his pals feel dramatically compelling because it's framed as a desperate collective quest to get out of a blue-collar, mobbed-up neighborhood that, ultimately, no one can ever leave. McAnuff injects so much tension and hyper-realism into the show that you don't ever want to look away.
Rule Two? Integrate the songs properly. Instead of a megamix, "Jersey Boys" makes every single hit number fill some kind of aching dramatic void. Many of these moments, of course, are shameless manipulations involving characters telling us that their world will fall apart without some breakthrough or new hit. But this endlessly savvy production repeatedly works the audience up into such a high-stakes lather that the on-stage performances of boffo Bob Gaudio songs such as "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," "Earth Angel" and "Sherry" become far more than exercises in nostalgia.
They all become catharses.
Rule Three? Don't mess with the arrangements. Nobody wants to hear some soprano come out and sing a post-modern "Bye Bye Baby." Here, the songs sound like they do on the recordings, sung by the same number of people with similar orchestrations (or lack thereof). The fullness comes from the human melodrama, not from a pretentious Broadway manipulator running scared of the original sound. It's intensely satisfying to the ear and on a gut level.
None of those rules would be operative, of course, without top-drawer performers. And in the hitherto unknown John Lloyd Young, McAnuff found a Valli with a comparably expansive vocal range and oodles of vulnerable charm. That's one Tony nomination right there. The second surely will go to Christian Hoff, whose hard-edged Tommy DeVito -- the street-smart obsessive who founded and then lost control of the group -- is what gives this show its authentic sense of the street. Hoff, who hasn't an effete bone in his body, is this show's ace.
The other two leads -- J. Robert Spencer as bassist Nick Massi and Daniel Reichard as composer and reluctant performer Gaudio -- are more conventional. It's also true that the show's weakest moments come when loose ends are tied up with melodramatic ribbon of a cheapness we've not hitherto seen.
But the audience is already putty by then.
This show works in no small part because Valli and The Four Seasons built an entire career on the same songwriting duo of Gaudio and lyricist Bob Crewe, giving "Jersey Boys" the stylistic unity of a conventional musical. But it's also a triumph of revved-up, in-your-face direction.
Some might argue that most of McAnuff's typical tricks should be resisted. Not true. Here, he makes the jukebox genre suddenly matter far, far too much for anyone to want to fight back. There's too much money to be made.