Story: New Jersey sits in the shadow of New York City across the Hudson River. Cities such as Newark can be tough places to grow up, especially for working-class Italian kids in the 1940s and ‘50s. Tommy DeVito, a garden variety hood in that era, also happens to be a pretty good musician. When he isn’t in trouble, he’s putting together groups which he hopes can hit the big time on the pop charts.
He takes a liking to a kid named Frankie Castelluccio, who becomes the lead singer for Tommy’s group, which performs under a laundry list of different names. When Tommy observes that trios such as his troupe, which also includes bass guitar player Nick Massi, are losing ground to quartets, he auditions musicians to join his band.
Tommy’s friend Joe Pesci introduces him to a kid named Bob Gaudio, a songwriter who’s had a national hit called Short Shorts in the late ‘50s with a group called The Royal Teens. DeVito bristles at Gaudio’s business savvy but buckles to the pressure from Frankie Valli (nee Castellucio) and Massi to hire the talented kid.
Limping along as a studio session back-up group, they finally hit the big time with the guidance of music producer Bob Crewe. Gaudio pens back-to-back-to-back hit songs (“the trifecta,” he says) called Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry and Walk Like a Man in 1962 and The Four Seasons (a name they took from a bowling alley marquee) are on their way to stardom.
They’re making a lot of money, but compulsive gambler Tommy is spending it even faster. Valli, who entered a business agreement earlier with Gaudio on a handshake agreement for work done outside the quartet, makes a promise to gangland leader Gyp DeCarlo to pay back every penny which has put Tommy in very hot water.
While the guys struggle with their own personal problems and battle the blues which accompany long road engagements, The Four Seasons in public keep turning out hits for the audiences whose eyes adore them, culminating in enshrinement in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. At that event the original four members performed together for the first time in more than 20 years since their heyday.
Highlights: The Muny showcases its best and brightest presentation yet in its centennial season with the world regional premiere of Jersey Boys. This first licensed production of Jersey Boys in the world is everything one could hope to see carrying the banner for the Tony Award-winning Best Musical of 2006, which ran for 4,642 performances before closing in 2017.
Other Info: Mark Ballas, the last performer to portray Valli in the long-running Broadway show, reprises that role in The Muny’s engaging production, which is invigorating and pulsing with vibrancy throughout its two acts and two and a half hours under the insightful direction of Josh Rhodes.
Not only does Rhodes maintain a steady and seamless pace in the presentation but he also contributes the smart choreography, stylish moves to the infectious music written by Bob Gaudio and the catchy lyrics penned by Bob Crewe (Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice wrote the book). Under Rick Bertone’s lively music direction, The Muny’s orchestra makes these Four Seasons’ hits sound as fresh as they were spinning on ‘60s platters.
Ballas made his Broadway debut as Valli, and while he can’t strike the high notes as consistently as Valli’s legendary falsetto he hits his stride during the performance, which is highlighted by his polished dance moves and effective acting portrayal of the blue-collar singer.
Bobby Conte Thornton personifies the easy-going nature of the intelligent Gaudio, whose songwriting abilities and talent at the keyboards propelled The Four Seasons to stardom.
Nicolas Dromard, who plays DeVito, and Keith Hines as Massi also are Jersey Boys alumni, the former in the Off-Broadway version of the show and the latter in the national tour, which included stops at The Fox Theatre. Both give winning performances, with Dromard accentuating Tommy’s crude and bullying ways, while Hines enjoys showcasing the dry humor of the slow-witted Massi, the self-described ‘Ringo’ of the quartet.
Nicholas Rodriguez is a delightful Crewe, the flamboyant producer and avid astrologist who saw that the stars were ‘aligned’ for Valli and Gaudio and their group and guided them to stardom. Neal Benari portrays gangster Gyp DeCarlo as a kindly grandfather who can make things ‘happen,’ while Ben Nordstrom is terrific as loan shark Norman Waxman, Tommy’s prison-bound brother Nick and other roles.
Michelle Aravena is effective as Valli’s tough first wife Mary Delgado and Candi Boyd sympathetically portrays his latter-day girlfriend Lorraine.
Muny Artistic Director and Executive Producer Mike Isaacson, whose initial phone call to Broadway producer Michael David resulted in this first regional effort, observes in his program notes that “the sets, costumes, direction, choreography, lighting and sound are all new, and all ours” in The Muny’s captivating presentation.
The handsome set designed by Paul Tate dePoo III meshes effortlessly with Matthew Young’s background video design, including a nifty turntable when Sherry is sung. It’s handsomely illuminated with Rob Denton’s lighting design, especially effective in more low-key, poignant scenes, and the complementary sound design is courtesy of John Shivers & David Patridge.
Andrea Lauer contributes a wide array of eye-popping, fancy costumes, while Robert Pickens’ wig design works especially well on The Angels’ girl-group number, My Boyfriend’s Back.
People of a certain age will recall when Dawn, Rag Doll, etc. were fresh hits on the charts, while the younger set can see history in action in The Muny’s glorious version of Jersey Boys.
Musical: Jersey Boys
Company: The Muny
Venue: The Muny in Forest Park
Dates: Through July 16
Tickets: Free to $100; contact 314-534-1111 or metrotix.com
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Phillip Hamer