What a treat to walk through Boston's theater district last night and see it bustling with activity. True, only two of the theaters were occupied by actual theatrical events: the national tour of Jersey Boys at the Shubert and that of Rent, which features original cast members Adam Pascal and Anthony Rapp, at the Colonial. (I'll be seeing the latter tomorrow night. Watch for my review.) The Wang was occupied by Steely Dan, and the Wilbur was hosting comedian Joy Behar. But for a second there, I could have sworn I was on 44th Street between 8th and Broadway.
It was likewise a pleasure to see the venerable Shubert occupied by a professional touring company. Lately, it's been relegated to second-tier status as a theater, hosting a local opera company and some dance performances. How keenly I recall seeing a wide variety of touring shows there during my high school and college years, including They're Playing Our Song, Evita, and Les Miserables. I also have fond memories of the occasional out-of-town tryout, such as Rags, Big Deal, or Dreamgirls. The last show I saw there before last night was Rent during its first national tour in the late '90s.
So I entered the Shubert with a keen sense of nostalgia, which is pretty darned appropriate given that I was there to see Jersey Boys, a show that veritably reeks of same. When I saw Jersey Boys on Broadway, with the original cast, I appreciated the show's slick presentation, but found it missing an emotional center. (Read my review.) I caught the show again last fall in Las Vegas, and had a very similar reaction. (Read my review.)
But as I sat watching the show last night, I found myself at first begrudgingly admitting that the show is extremely well crafted and executed, and then gradually and genuinely enjoying the ride. (Perhaps I've finally let go of the umbrage I felt when Jersey Boys won the best musical Tony over The Drowsy Chaperone.) The Jersey Boys book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice is a model of economy, providing just enough context to put the goings-on into perspective. There's also plenty of humor and pathos in evidence. Add in Des McAnuff's swift direction and Sergio Trujillo's sharp staging, and you have about as entertaining a show as you could reasonably imagine. No, Jersey Boys is no world-changer. But it manages to convey the admittedly quotidian story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons with heart and showmanship.
Brickman and Elice, in particular, really know how to build excitement, as they do so ably in the dialog leading up to both "Sherry" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You." Of course, it doesn't hurt that Bob Gaudio's songs are just so frickin' great. I defy you not to feel chills when the first few chords of the latter song start in. And there's something inexplicably thrilling about watching the horn section walk in step across the catwalk during the iconic buildup to the song's "I love you baby..." refrain. It gets me every time.
No doubt director McAnuff had a strong hand in some of the smart choices that the show exhibits, including songs when the show needs them, as well as stage business and dialog interwoven to give the songs some weight. McAnuff also displays a fine touch for simple but effective staging choices, such as having characters (wives, girlfriends, daughters) walk across the set's catwalk when they're leaving someone's life, back-lit from stage left as they exit, as well as having Valli face upstage with his back to the audience during a pivotal and emotional scene in the second act. Overall my third viewing of this show brought me closer to an appreciation of Jersey Boys as a truly remarkable achievement.
But I think the main reason that this was the best of the Jersey Boys productions that I've seen is Joseph Leo Bwarie as Frankie Valli. Bwarie not only had the Valli impersonation down to a T, he also brought an understated intensity and a very amiable quality to the role. Bwarie renders credible both the unassuming and mensch-like qualities of Valli in the book scenes, as well as the dynamic, born-to-perform nature of Valli when he starts to sing Gaudio's amazing catalog.
Jersey Boys does suffer from a few minor missteps. The show does an admirable job of weaving in the hits of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, but I'm sort of at a loss to explain why the group sings "Rag Doll" at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. OK, sure, perhaps that's simply the song they sang at that particular performance, but in a show that seems to amply justify nearly every song, that song sticks out as inexplicable. A quibble, to be sure.
Some of my fellow bloggers have commented as to how they don't really consider Jersey Boys to be a musical. I'm going to need to respectfully disagree with my esteemed friends and colleagues. First, as I've stated before, my attitude is that a "musical" is defined by its creators. As long as the people who put the show together consider it a musical, then I'm all for calling that show a musical. So, yes, Contact is a musical. So are Movin' Out, Ain't Misbehavin', and even [shudder] Dirty Dancing. The question is: Are they any good? Some of the aforementioned shows are very good indeed, Contact and Ain't Misbehavin', in particular. Whereas Dirty Dancing is an utter abomination, an affront to mankind, and a pestilent scourge on the theatrical landscape. (Read my review of Dirty Dancing.)
Call Jersey Boys anything you want. What it is, at least from my perspective, is a fitting tribute to a beloved singing group, and one of the most all-around entertaining shows to come around in many a season.