With more than 30 songs in its score, Jersey Boys is almost more rock concert than it is a musical. And certainly the audience at the 5th Avenue Theatre, where the show runs through May 4, treated it as a rock concert, enthusiastically cheering their favorite songs and clearly not wanting the music to end. This story of the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons transports you back to a time that wasn’t necessarily kinder and gentler, but did seem to be loaded with more than its share of irresistible music.
Jersey Boys—a reference to the Four Seasons’ home state of New Jersey—doesn’t take the songs from the group’s catalogue and fashion a story about them, a la Mamma Mia! Instead, the songs are used to tell the band’s own story. And, in a clever twist, the story is narrated in turn by each of the group’s members—Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio (the Four Seasons’ primary songwriter), Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi—giving you a variety of perspectives.
The group’s scrappy beginnings aren’t glossed over; when the Four Seasons first broke through in 1962 with “Sherry,” they took care to hide the fact that their background included criminal activity and a more than passing relationship with Jersey mobsters (one wonders how that situation would be handled today). The songs are integrated into the show in different ways, some simply showing the group in performance (as with “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” which the group are shown performing on The Ed Sullivan Show), others providing commentary on the narrative; Valli and his wife singing “My Eyes Adored You” as they agree to divorce, Valli singing “Fallen Angel” when his daughter dies of a drug overdose. It helps make the show more well rounded; you’re not simply seeing the Four Seasons work their way through their biggest hits.
The characters are fairly one-dimensional—Tommy DeVito is the defensive tough guy, contrasted with Bob Gaudio’s ambitious, wide-eyed innocence—but the show’s heart and soul is really in the songs. Brad Weinstock, as Frankie Valli, handles the lion’s share of the singing with style (he’s especially effective on the slower numbers), and all of the Seasons appear to be having such a good time, you can’t help but be caught up in their infectious fun. The set, with its cartoon-style backdrops, also accentuates the giddy good times.
But one striking, and overlooked, element about Jersey Boys is how the story underscores the harsh realities of show business and the downside of success. The Four Seasons are struggling for years to have their first hit, yet when fame arrives they’re plagued by other difficulties: The road becomes a grind, relationships with family and friends fall apart, managers and record companies cheat you, you can have a series of #1 records and still wind up deeply in debt.
There’s a lot of heartache, but most people seeing Jersey Boys won’t remember that side of the story. They’ll leave the theater with the sounds of “Walk Like a Man,” “Let’s Hang On,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” still ringing in their ears. In fact, as I was leaving, a woman rushed up to me and asked if she could have my ticket. Your ticket stub is good for $25 off a future ticket purchase, and she couldn’t wait to see it again.
Jersey Boys plays at the 5th Avenue Theatre through May 4. Pictured above, from left to right: Brandon Andrus, Brad Weinstock, Jason Kappus and Colby Foytik. Photo by Joan Marcus.