Exuberant sounds mix with realistic vignettes of remarkable lives
By Lucy Komisar
If you came of age in the 60s, this smart, vibrant, clever memoir of the ways things sounded will evoke shivers of delight. And also some fascination, as the pulsating, exuberant sounds of Motown and doo-wop are skillfully linked to the story of some decidedly unheroic working class youths who by drive and talent rise to the top of pop music. This is no ordinary juke box musical.
Valli, né Castelluccio, (John Lloyd Young) and his friends live in New Jersey, in the shadow of the tank farms — huge containers of chemicals. Life is as crude. Their youth is
honed in the era of Eisenhower and Rocky Marciano and women with pointy bras. Their choice is to join the army or the mob, or as one later puts it, to become a star. A lot of youths from the neighborhood end up in the Rahway Correctional Facility.
Anti-hero Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff) has brains enough to see how to push his group to success, but not enough to manage his own life. A gambler, he gets in hock to the mob for $150,000. But there is always a ready quip: “Some were born great, some have greatness thrust upon them, some fuck it up.”
It is a time of sexual revolution, just over the edge of the politically and socially repressive 50s, and suggestive lyrics are just beginning to rage along with kids‘ hormones. The show and songs, with the help of Bob Crewe‘s lyrics, masterfully capture the angst of a generation of teens and 20s. The words aren‘t the subtle and political poetry of the Beatles or the sophistication of American cabaret. They are more direct, closer perhaps to the blues and country & western. The songs and story touch audiences, perhaps because they can feel the pain of youths who didn‘t have a lot of choices in their lives. The group picked the name “The Four Seasons” because they saw the neon at a club. They‘d never heard of Vivaldi.
Writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice shift seamlessly between the stories of the young men and the development of 60s music, which The Four Seasons helped define.
In flashy pink or glittery gold jackets, guitar and drums thumping, the four reprise their hits. “Sherry” sold a million records in three weeks. Others, all memorable, include “Pretty Baby,” “Cant Take My Eyes Off You,” “Big Girls Don‘t Cry.” The latter was inspired by seeing John Payne slap Rhonda Flemming in a film. “What do you think of that!” The answer was, “Big girls don‘t cry, they break up.” The musical sounds of Young, Hoff, Daniel Reichard and J. Robert Spencer seem as good as the four they emulate.
John Lloyd Young is a powerful Frankie Valli, the young kid who sang falsetto when that was new and helped make them big time. He is utterly believable as he moves from naive kid to a star who is savvy about his music but not his personal life.
The mob itself is depicted with some bemusement. Gyp DiCarlo (Mark Lotito), the fixer, wants a sentimental song about “mother” and breaks up in tears at the anniversary of her death.
The women in the cast play multiple roles. Mary Delgado is strong as Frankie Valli’s intelligent wife pushed into sarcasm by the strain of living with him.
Director Des McAnuff expertly integrates the vignettes with the music. All is helped by Klara Zieglerova‘s design in a style that might be called “evocative realism” – the reddish backdrop of the tank farm seen through a silver chain link fence, steel scaffolding walkway and stairs, a simple desk or cafe table, a backdrop of Roy Liechtenstein cartoon paintings.
It is all so realistic, that some audience members clapped when, at the end, the four in turn told what had happened to the people they were playing — as if the actors were real people on one of those smarmy TV “this is your life” shows. But maybe they were also cheering for their own youths.
Jersey Boys. Book by Bob Crewe. Lyrics by Bob Gaudio. Directed by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Choreographed by Des McAnuff. August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52 Street. New York City. February 2007. Running time: 2:30.