Everyone loves a good underdog story. But when you add some mobster shenanigans, drug use, copious sex, betrayal, death, and four blue-collar guys belting out more than 30 epic oldies like a jukebox on amphetamines, you've got Jersey Boys, the musical.
Chronicling the bittersweet saga of The Four Seasons, the 1960s rock n' roll quartet, the play -- directed by Des McAnuff -- traverses more than 40 years of the Boys' lives together from the streetwise corners of New Jersey to the glinting lights of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The play opens rather strangely -- in Paris of all places -- with a black rapper flanked by B-Girl dancers circa 2000. Tommy DeVito (played by the rakish John Gardiner) steps into the gyrating mass, freezing the action, and directly addresses the audience. He tells us the rapper was singing Oh What a Night (Ces Soirees), the 1963 hit from the Four Seasons. Yup, they got that big -- Europe big.
Each of the Boys takes over narration for part of the show, offering their own takes on the group's rise to stardom. It works well and offers the audience the occasional breather from Nick Cosgrove's relentless falsetto (more on that in a minute.)
Four seasons (get it?) demarcate the passage of time -- and the boys' different perspectives -- with pop-art projections over the stage. The set, designed by Klara Zieglerova, is fairly stark -- toggling between chain-link fences, scaffolding, bar stools and neon signs -- but transforms the space seamlessly and simply, allowing the music to take center stage.
Act 1 is a doozy -- running an hour and a half -- and is positively brimming with electric energy. We watch the group's struggle with petty crime and Rahway prisons as well as their kowtowing to the local, cartoonishly Italian, mobster Gyp DeCarlo to make their botched break-ins or rabid debt collectors "go away."
In the band's early days, DeVito served as ringleader in both word and deed, pounding the pavement, booking gigs, and knocking off convenience stores to fund his dream. DeVito discovered Valli (then Francesco Stephen Castelluccio) at just 16, grooming him to be a fierce frontman alongside himself and Nick Massi (played by Michael Lomenda). Soon enough, songwriter Bob Gaudio is discovered by none other than Joe Pesci (the actor grew up alongside the Jersey Boys) played by Frank Galasso, who is impeccable as a bumbling, foul-mouthed youth.
DeVito is a charming if dastardly character, and Gardiner nails his roughneck ways, delivering raunchy one-liners and a devil-may-care attitude with smirks, slaps on the face, and a lurking violence and greed that is downright chilling. His voice -- though usually coupled with the quartet -- was the weakest of the group, but his acting chops (and stellar dance moves) eclipsed his ho-hum warblings; the audience could palpably feel his power over Frankie Valli and the infamous loyalty that grew between them.
Cosgrove's portrayal of Valli is valiant -- he has to depict him from 16 to nearly 60 -- and the role is incredibly demanding; he barely leaves the stage and sings two thirds of the numbers in a voice so high, we're betting the castrati are green with envy. His impish grin, slight frame, and undeniable appeal channel Valli's magnetism; only someone with an ineffable something could bag 29 Top 40 hits. But the deeper, buttery, crooner tones of Valli's voice were sorely missed. While songs like Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry, Walk Like a Man, and Dawn were red-hot and those holy-shit notes decidedly nailed, other songs that required a come-hither richness, like Working My Way Back to You and Stay, sounded closer to the constricted tones of a country tune.
Miles Jacoby, who typically plays Bob Gaudio, was sick last night, but his understudy Tommaso Antico's portrayal of the songwriter "genius," quietly debonair and with an eye to the future, was understated, but excellent. Michael Lomenda, who took on the seemingly sleeper role of Nick Massi, also shined. Using his large frame to his advantage, Lomenda create a lovable neurotic, oafish but impeccable, an underling that is also imperative to the group's success. His beefy baritone and bass notes off-set Cosgrove's voice beautifully as well.
The last stand-out has to be Jonathan Hadley depicting Bob Crewe, the infamous record producer who co-wrote a few gems alongside Gaudio. Portrayed as mildly lecherous, possibly (definitely) gay, and voraciously talented, Hadley helps the Boys soar to stardom amid witty wisecracks, industry insights and serious sass. When Gaudio laments a DJ's promise "on his mother's grave" that he would play the new single, Can't Keep My Eyes Off of You, Hadley turns to him with affectionate disgust and says, "This is the music industry, these people don't have mothers."
The only serious misstep of the entire performance were the female performers. Kara Tremel as Mary Delgado (Valli's wife) did bring a decided depth to otherwise paper-thin female characters with grit, drunkenness, and lower-class pathos, but by and large, we were underwhelmed by the ladies of Jersey. In particular, the performance of The Angels' hit, My Boyfriend's Back was almost painful to witness.
As the only number that depicts the female contemporaries of the 1960s, you really want it to knock your socks off. Instead, I found myself wincing; the women lacked the quintessential bubbly effervescence of the love-culture era, and also the pipes. This number could be a wonderful opportunity to showcase a female anthem in theory, but this version fell a bit flat. The wigs didn't help either. They made obviously attractive woman look alternatively grizzled and severe instead of glamorous.
All in all, Jersey Boys delivers. It's everything you need and want from a heavyweight musical; the pacing is swift, the music stellar, and the acting compelling. The foursome flies through the material with ease, confidence, and undeniable pleasure; the ensemble flanks their efforts with equal aplomb and energy.
Oh, and they say "fuck" like 45 times, which is a bit more edgy than say, Mary Poppins.
Jersey Boys continues through Apr. 28 at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary Street, S.F. Admission is $40 - $210.