Sunday, September 27, 2015

“Jersey Boys” - Music-Drenched Story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons

(L to R) Keith Hines, Matthew Dailey, Aaron De Jesus and Drew Seeley  Photo Credit: Jeremy Daniel

    Even those who never much cared for the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons will probably like “Jersey Boys,” the glitzy, Tony-Award winning musical now back at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Theater. The show has been staged in town twice before, and it seems that, judging by the size of the media night audience, enthusiasm for the show is still going strong.
Those who are fans of the crooner with the unique falsetto and his backup team of hipster singers of upbeat tunes that wooed audiences worldwide for 20 years starting in the early 60s should be thrilled to the point of ecstasy. “Oh, What a Night!”
            Since it opened at the August Wilson Theater on Broadway on November 6, 2005, “Jersey Boys”  has been seen by 20 million people worldwide (since August of last year), and has become  the  13th longest running Broadway show, recently surpassing “Hello, Dolly!” “Avenue Q,” “The Producers,” “Hairspray,” “My Fair Lady,” “Oklahoma,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and the original productions of “Grease” and “42nd Street
    The show obviously has staying power, something you couldn’t say for similar pop-songbook attempts that went nowhere that showcased the likes of John Lennon, the Beach Boys and even Elvis himself.
            Despite the show’s rather sketchy plot line that seems mere window dressing for the real guts of the production – the groups’ top of the charts hits that really rev up in the second act, scriptwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice manage to not only chronicle the groups ups and downs starting when Valli was a mere 16 year old, but also infuse a surprisingly good bit of drama into the script.
   Going into the show, I knew little of Valli’s personal life and was surprised to learn that, despite the largely feel-good, even ebullient, nature of most of his music, his life had many dark moments. There were the early-on struggles to get noticed, financial difficulties, trouble with both organized crime and the law (they once landed in a Cleveland jail for not paying a hotel bill), spats and ego-driven jealousies within the group and travail and sorrow in Valli’s family life.

(L to rR Dru Serkes, Keith Hines, Aaron De Jesus, Matthew Dailey, Drew Seeley and Thomas Fiscella Photo: Jeremy Daniel
 Understandably, the show’s main ingredient is the actor who portrays Valli and tries to capture his distinctive nasal singing style. Aaron De Jesus fares well on both counts, showing him transform from his insecure subservient early days to become a self-confident star who knows how to maneuver his way through the labyrinth of the dog-eat-dog music business.
    The rest of the quartet also manages to cast clear-cut personalities despite the kinetic, fast-paced  movement from scene to scene that leaves little time to form in-depth, flesh and blood  personalities. As Tommy DeVito, the group’s founder and organizer, Matthew Dailey projects a likable image, even though his irresponsible nature and nefarious interests propel the group on a downward spiral.
    Drew Seeley gets the role of talented songwriter and keyboardist, Bob Gaudio, the brains behind the group. Cool as a cucumber, he steers a steady course through both the Seasons’ rise to fame and its misadventures through troubled waters. Lumbering hulk, Keith Hines, perhaps the quartet’s most affable member, keeps in step with the boys to the rather sedate choreographed movements typical of their era, tame by contemporary standards.
    Given the musical’s focus on the boy band, there’ not much room for female characters who are given supporting or cameo roles. Adding a needed feminine touch, Lauren Tartaglia does a nice job in multiple roles as Frankie’s wife, mother, Nick’s date – 17 roles in all, while Jaycie Dotin morphs on and off the stage in 15 separate guises.
    For visual flash, lighting designs by Howard Binkley fill the back wall of the set with blazes of glorious color, while Michael Clark’s minimalist projections provide a sense of  place for the rapidly moving scenario. I’m not sure who decided to send blinding rays of light into the audience a la “Rent,” but I found it just as irksome in ‘Jersey Boys” as it was in the pop musical adaptation of “La Boheme.”
    The raised metal scaffolding that towered above the set to the rear proved effective in adding dimension and depth to the proscenium and gave the actors a good bit more of performance space to play around on.
    A half century after their rise to Billboard chart popularity, the Four Seasons and their music still seem to be  reverberating among audiences young and old. “Jersey Boys”’ happens to be  the next best thing to experiencing the originals in live performance. Considering the show's technological enhancements and inventive stagecraft spearheaded by director, Des McAnuff, it  may be even better..

    “Jersey Boys” is at the Benedum Center in Downtown Pittsburgh through October 4. Phone 412-456-6666.    

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