Welk without bubbles

Jersey Boys is perhaps the slickest musical to play the Majestic in recent years, and that’s no backhanded compliment: it’s undeniably entertaining — with some dynamite performances — as well as almost eerily cinematic in its fluidity. Indeed, Des McAnuff’s direction is so assured and effective that it almost, but not quite, obscures the fascinating tension between the show’s implicit promise and what Jersey Boys actually delivers.

The promise begins with the logo: a row of shapely derrieres attached to the Four Seasons as they gesture theatrically towards an audience. The point of view is transparently from “behind the scenes” — behind the behinds, even — and indicates that this will be a privileged, insider’s gaze at the phenomenon of an influential boy band: a sort of VH1 special on steroids. This logo is replicated on stage in one of McAnuff’s stunning coups de théâtre: the Four Seasons as well as the audience are blinded by brilliant concert lighting, as McAnuff transposes the point of view from the proscenium to an illusory “backstage.” It’s a powerful trompe d’oeil effect that takes one’s breath away.

But direction only gets one so far, and the evening’s promise is only partly fulfilled by book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Clearly, they struggle to give all Four Seasons an equal amount of back story, with the result that certain arcs are given great prominence (i.e. Tommy DeVito’s financial troubles) while other, perhaps more compelling, woes are given short shrift. In particular, the expository addresses to the audience smack of desperation. For instance, Nick Massi mentions only in passing that his children call him “Uncle Nick” just so he doesn’t have to confess his paternity. (Up to that point, we didn’t even know Nick had kids, much less a family complex straight out of Faulkner.) And late in Act II — the weaker act — we’re startled to discover that Frankie Valli has jettisoned his entire “starter” family and begun a new one. And the list continues.

When, however, the musical concentrates on the group’s professional career, it sizzles, particularly when it emphasizes songwriter Bob Gaudio’s staggering output, including a run of #1 hits (“Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Oh, What a Night,” etc.). As Frankie Valli, Joseph Leo Bwarie indeed sings like an angel; and Matt Bailey, Steve Gouveia, and Quinn VanAntwerp round out the quartet with solid performances. Set designer Klara Zieglerova has opted for a postmodern border of steel and scaffolding, perfect for McAnuff’s split-second transitions. Michael Clark’s decision to frame the action with Roy Lichtenstein-inspired comic book projections is an unfortunate one, however. Lichtenstein, like many pop artists, celebrates surface over substance, and the inclusion of his art occasionally works at cross-purposes to the conceit of the evening.

The mature audience at the Majestic clearly knew all the group’s hits, and, indeed, the musical’s effectiveness largely depended on the power of nostalgia. At several points, audience members even cooed their encouragement before the verse began. (In that respect, it’s like the best episode ever of Lawrence Welk.)

So, yes, Jersey Boys won the Tony Award, but is it a great musical? I think it’s a great production. But as a musical, it’s a bit too scattered in its story, and can’t overcome the inherent peril of the jukebox format: popular songs that don’t necessarily propel the narrative. Dreamgirls may not be perfect, but it’s a better piece of theater. It similarly examines the rise-and-demise of an American musical group, but with greater emotional heft, and a score that reinforces the strengths of the story telling. As always, the true test of greatness is time. I’ve the sense that subsequent productions will be hard pressed to find superior solutions to McAnuff’s skillful stagecraft, as Jersey Boys crisscrosses the country—from coast to (Jersey) coast. •

Jersey Boys
Through Sep 26
$25 - $137
Majestic Theatre
224 E Houston St