Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Walk Like the Band:"Jersey Boys" strikes all the right poses

Posted by on Wed, Feb 3, 2010 at 11:59 AM

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Jersey Boys is okay by me. Sure this Tony-winning revue screams out for eternal life in Vegas but its brass tacks documentary-style storytelling and concert-quality musical performances give it an edge over jukebox musicals like Mama Mia and the insufferable All Shook Up. Guys who usually have to be drug to the theater freakin' love it. And that in and of itself is some kind of miracle.

Let's speak truth here. Before Jersey Boys came along if you stumbled across a bunch of palookas shooting pool in a sports pub you could bet the Devil your head they weren't talking about their favorite Broadway musical. Then along comes this show about Franky Valli and the Four Seasons, four mooks from the tough side of town who struggle and yearn and harmonize their asses off all the way to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Badda-bing, badda-boom everything changes over night.

So what makes Jersey Boys such a hit with the boys who hate musicals? Maybe it's got something to do with the absence of show tunes. On the other hand, if you like Mid-Century American pop it's hard not to be taken in by spot on covers of Four Seasons hits like “Big Girls Don't Cry” and “Walk Like a Man” or by the uncanny replication of The Angels singing “My Boyfriend's Back” like it was 1963 all over again. Mix all that solid gold bubblegum with a compelling story about bad ass gangsters, fast girls, amazing cars and bowling and you've got the recipe for Jersey Boys. The cherry on top of this big banana split: Joe Pesci—yes THAT Joe Pesci— emerges as a pivotal character. What's not to love?

Physically and vocally Joseph Leo Bwarie is a dead ringer for Valli and he's given incredible support by Matt Bailey, Steve Gouveia, and Ryan Jesse who are equally convincing as Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi, and Bob Gaudio. Sarah Darling, Denise Payne, and Kara Tremel work overtime playing a variety of mothers, wives, b-girls, and entertainers. Although the Jersey Boys get all the glory these three women play over 50 characters and are, along with the rest of a tight ensemble, the show's secret stars.

Anybody who's ever watched an episode of VH-1's Behind the Music knows that the good times never last. You can take the boys out of Jersey but you can't take the Jersey out of the boys. With the exception of Bob Gaudio, the group's straightest arrow, they are are all haunted to some degree by their troubled pasts. The boys party hard and between Tommy's gambling problems and Frankie's family issues things begin to fall apart. By the time the show rounds the comeback corner it has become incredibly predictable. But by then Bwarie is laying down such a completely credible version of “Can't Take My Eyes Off of You” that predictability hardly matters.

Jersey Boys has its priorities right. The songs are perfect, the acting is solid and the story is well told. Only the set—a minimal creation as Broadway musicals go and extremely functional— can be described as a miserable failure. Bright Roy Lichtenstein-inspired projections bring warm and welcome colors to a lean industrial-feeling environment. But Pop Art is too self-conscious and the campy images work hard to undermine a show that's as sincere and straight up as a Bon Jovi fan from back in the day.

The best things about Jersey Boys can be summed up in the play's closing moments when Gaudio talks about life after The Four Seasons. “Today everything is different; there's no action,” He says complacently looking out over the audience. “I'm an average nobody. Get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.”

Wait a second. That's not Gaudio's line. I'm sorry, those are Henry Hill's closing words from Goodfellas. Sometimes get the two shows confused. There are a few similarities. Did I mention Joe Pesci?

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