At the Auditorium Theatre by Dan Zeff
Chicago – The current national tour of “Jersey Boys” is stopping at the Auditorium Theatre for a paltry eight performances. This might be the final Broadway caliber staging of the musical to play Chicago before it enters the domain of regional theaters, so patrons should seize the moment. This is a terrific production and we may never see its like again.
“Jersey Boys” opened on Broadway in 2005 as the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, one of the most popular singing groups of the late 1900’s. The show was expected to be a typical jukebox musical and reviewers and audiences were amazed and delighted to discover that it was one of the most creative and entertaining events in modern musical theater history.
“Jersey Boys” featured the singing group’s many hit songs, as well as a generous helping of other rock music hits of the 1950’s and beyond. But the integration of story and songs was fascinating in its storytelling, and the Broadway premiere showcased a batch of engaging and talented new performers. There is another significant element that contributes to the show’s popularity, and it was enthusiastically displayed by the opening night audience at the Auditorium. It was the palpable rapport between the performers and the audience that extended beyond the show’s nostalgia power. At the end of the musical, the main characters say goodbye directly to the spectators, who reacted like they were accepting the farewells from the original members of the group. Pop music fans of multiple generations obviously hold Valli and the Seasons in great affection and their applause and occasional cheers at the Auditorium were generous and sincere. The cavernous Auditorium Theatre clearly didn’t inhibit the intimate connection between performers and spectators.
“Jersey Boys” tells the story of the group from its origins as a struggling group of young Italian men growing up on the mean streets of urban New Jersey in the 1950’s. The narrative is told primarily through the eyes of each member of the group, versions that differed considerably in their collective memory.
The show follows the group’s trajectory to international super stars and eventually to their contentious breakup. The Four Seasons gained its success with the personnel of lead singer Frankie Valli accompanied by Bob Gaudio, the composer of most of the group’s hits, plus Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito. The second act largely is Valli’s story, his tragic personal life combined with his solo singing career. In many ways the rise and fall of the Four Seasons is a familiar show business saga, but their cumulative biography is told with a narrative sweep that keeps the audience continuously involved with the Seasons as people as well as performers.
The storytelling honors go to book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. The staging by director Des McAnuff weaves biography and music together in a seamless whole. The physical production is a marvelous combination of efficient set design (Klara Zieglerova), costume design (Jess Goldstein), lighting design (Howell Binkley), sound design (Steve Canyon Kennedy), and especially projection design (Michael Clark). The complex staging will be impossible for smaller regional theaters to replicate. Hence the urging to see the production in its full high-tech glory this week.
I’ve seen “Jersey Boys” several times and each production featured a star performance by the singer-actor playing Frankie Valli. But no star has shined more brightly than Jonny Wexler. The diminutive Wexler looks amazingly like the actual Frankie and his sonorous falsetto voice captured the Valli magic in every number. Wexler’s rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” was the opening night show stopper, earning a sustained cascade of applause and cheers from the appreciative crowd. The vocal demands on Wexler must be immense, especially for eight performances a week, but he delivered big time every moment he was on stage.
The other main characters are all right on target. Cory Greenan is Tommy DeVito, the group founder who contributed to its demise through his devious personality and his out of control gambling. Erik Chambliss is terrific as Bob Gaudio, the group highbrow and resident musical genius composer. Jonathan Cable adds a deft comic touch to the role of Nick Massi, maybe the least talented of the Four Seasons but the most endearing. There is also fine support from Wade Dooley as record producer Bob Crewe, Ashley Bruce as Frankie’s long-suffering wife, and Chloe Tiso in multiple roles. But the entire large ensemble is fine, down to the actors skillfully moving props on and off stage to sustain the pace of the production.
The Four Seasons sold millions of records of such hits as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man.” Maybe they didn’t have the historic impact of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and Elvis but they connected on an emotional and artistic level with the average music fan for decades. And they still do!
The show gets a rating of four stars.
“Jersey Boys” runs through April 7 at the Auditorium Theatre, 50 East Ida B. Wells Drive. Performances are Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Thursday and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m.,, and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $30 to $115. Visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com.