By Lynn Venhaus
The music, the men and the mirth that make “Jersey Boys” so exhilarating lit up a very special Muny debut Monday.
The electric production – the world regional premiere – triumphed in its transformation from smaller Broadway/national tour houses to the massive outdoor stage. And yet its super-size did not diminish the show’s intimacy or heart.
Under the dynamic direction of Josh Rhodes, this beloved Tony-winning musical became a rolling bolt of thunder, igniting a distinctive wall of sound and stylized high-energy dance numbers – also choreographed by Rhodes.
Whether or not you recognize the songs or know it was these guys, the individuals who formed the chart-topping rock group The Four Seasons in the 1960s and 1970s become unforgettable by show’s end.
That’s because the performers soared in their portraits: Mark Ballas is sensational as the indomitable lead singer Frankie Valli; Keith Hines, who captured the crowd with an amusing deadpan delivery, is quirky bass player Nick Massi; Bobby Conte Thornton showed youthful bravado as keyboard player Bob Gaudio, who was the young music genius behind the songs; and Nicolas Dromard swaggered as troublemaker guitarist Tommy DeVito, the original mover and shaker.
Rhodes effectively used scenic designer Paul Tate dePoo III’s shrewd set pieces to convey the backstage drama and inside show-biz pizzazz.
The intricate scaffolding, stripped-down stage levels and unadorned living/office spaces worked well, allowing the spotlight to simply shine on the intense brotherhood that became a band. Thus, the close-knit feel of the relationships was kept intact.
The stunning rags-to-riches story about guys from the wrong side of the tracks became a musical juggernaut when it opened on Broadway in 2005. It closed in 2017, but with its tireless appeal, has reopened off-Broadway.
“Jersey Boys” is currently the 12th longest-running Broadway show (4,642 performances in 11 years). In 2006, it won four Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Actor, Featured Actor and Lighting Design.
During its multiple national tour stops at The Fox Theatre in St. Louis, “Jersey Boys” never lost its luster, and part of the fun was sharing the experience with a zealous audience. It was, and still is, Baby Boomer bliss.
Nevertheless, other generations are fans too because it is the ultimate feel-good musical.
In a departure from most Muny fare, this one has more adult content, so I would consider it rated PG-13, use viewer discretion.
The appreciative Muny crowd of 8.439 gave the harmonious ensemble a big group hug, expressing its affection with loud ovations, cheers and much laughter.
The show’s biggest strength is how well it’s put together – a fascinating tale with dramatic struggles that resonate and hard-earned accomplishments to celebrate, combined with catchy hooks and solid tech elements. The group has sold 175 million records.
Book writers Rick Elice and Oscar-winning screenwriter Marshall Brickman took an interesting approach by presenting different points of view, which is interspersed with the group’s career path. They also broke the Fourth Wall, a now-familiar device where characters talk directly to the audience.
The radiant greatest hits timeline, with songs written by Bob Gaudio (music) and Bob Crewe (lyrics), include their first smash “Sherry” in 1962 and their last number one, “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” in 1976, which contrasts with the darker scenarios and in-fighting.
The quartet’s smooth-as-silk vocal harmonies, crisp timing and vivid personalities combined in a magical way to produce bright shining moments.
Three had played their roles before – “Dancing with the Stars” regular Ballas was Valli in the Broadway final cast, while Dromard was in the off-Broadway show and Hines had been on tour (I recognized his unmistakable voice from the May 2016 stop at the Fox). Thornton had Muny experience – as Enjolras in “Les Miserables” in 2013.
The impassioned Ballas induced goosebumps with his virtuoso solo “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” earning applause throughout the number and one of the longest ovations in recent memory, clearly the crowd’s favorite.
Obviously, Ballas can dance, displaying his mastery of motion, but his angelic falsetto, infused with some grit, was astonishing. He became Valli, not just an imitation.
Standouts in the ensemble included fan favorite Nicholas Rodriguez as music wizard Bob Crewe, and several other brief parts.
Versatile veteran Ben Nordstrom filled four different roles, including loan shark Norm Waxman, while newcomer Neal Benari slipped into six different parts, including mob boss Gyp DeCarlo. Candi Boyd, with multiple “Jersey Boys” credits, handled three characters while Trina Mills played four.
Broadway vet Michelle Aravena, as Valli’s first wife Mary Delgado, was heart-wrenching in the duet “My Eyes Adored You,” a mother dealing with loss.
Because the Muny is the first theater in the world to stage a new production of “Jersey Boys,” the creative team put their own bold stamp on designs, and their contributions were significant.
Rhodes, who directed “Young Frankenstein” here in 2015, confidently zeroed in on making the musical numbers pop while emotionally layering the drama. Rick Bertone’s music direction was flawless, as were the musicians who supplied the robust orchestrations.
Rob Denton’s superb lighting design was an integral part of the show’s success, alternating from street lamps to Las Vegas, recording studios to “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Matthew Young’s vibrant video designs reflected the era’s changing times and helped establish moods too. Red vinyl records! (They really existed).
While the sound design by John Shivers and David Patridge was impressive music-wise, the microphones were less successful delivering the dialogue, and in several instances, cut out.
Costume designer Andrea Lauer’s clean yet colorful silhouettes for dancers boosted the poppy feel of the big numbers. And the band dressed sharper as the years passed.
The finale at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 is another “Wow” crowd pleaser – with a glowing “Who Loves You,” followed by a rousing “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” as the curtain call.
Oh, what a night is right. The Fourth of July holiday festivities may be over, but fireworks were ablaze in Forest Park, spectacularly delivering the quintessential American Dream story.
“Jersey Boys” runs through July 16 at the Muny, with an extra eighth performance available for this show. For tickets, go to: www.Muny.org or call the box office at 314-361-1900, or MetroTix at 314-534-8111.
Photos by Phillip Hamer