By Jeff Ritter
The ’60s rock and roll explosion is a period in music history that may never be rivaled. Rhythm and blues was evolving and a generation of young fans turned it into a cultural revolution. Sure, the first group anyone thinks of are those four lads from Liverpool. But there were four fellas from New Jersey who likewise made memorable music while facing some interesting challenges.
That, in a nutshell, is what “Jersey Boys” is about: the rags to riches and nearly back to rags story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. It rocks the famous St. Louis Muny Theatre July 9 – 16.
At a time when rock and roll was but a teenager, erupting from the souls of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Chuck Berry, The Four Seasons were something of a throwback, recalling a more polished crooner style like another famous Jersey boy, Frank Sinatra.
The first group was guitarist Tommy DeVito, his brother Nick DeVito on lead guitar, Nick Massi on bass, and the uniquely voiced Frankie Valli.
“Jersey Boys” tells this tale as a series of narratives. Tommy (Nicolas Dromard) tells the audience of their formative years, trying to find the right band name and the right sound. He’ll also tell you all about how he was the one who discovered Frankie.
When Nick DeVito (Ben Nordstrom) exits the band, he’s replaced by lyricist and keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Bobby Conte Thornton) who developed a strong rapport with Valli and shepherds the band to the top of the charts. He narrates the end of the first act as the actors perform a series of Four Seasons’ greatest hits.
Act II starts off with Nick Massi (Keith Hines) dishing the dirt on things Tommy conveniently failed to mention about himself, namely huge gambling debts and half a million dollars in back taxes.
Hines is hilarious as he intones a deadpan, nasally delivery that is reasonably Jersey and certainly reminiscent of comedian Steven Wright. This is also where we really see just how friendly the band is with the local mobster, Gyp DeCarlo (Neal Benari).
Finally, Frankie Valli (Mark Ballas, who was also the last to play Frankie during the show’s long Broadway run) sheds some light on his own character. As a husband and father, he was absent the majority of the time. But he took on Tommy’s massive debt as the band’s own and eventually cleared the ledger. That’s a declaration of the band as a family even as they buy Tommy out as part of a deal with the mob to save him from a grisly fate.
The set was generally sparse, with an iron stage positioned across the Muny’s giant turntable. A video screen provided the backdrop, mostly during the numerous songs — 34, in fact!
Those musical numbers are a real treat, admirably performed by erstwhile band and particularly by Ballas. For his first couple of songs, Ballas sounded slightly off, just missing the right octave. As the show progressed, Ballas seemed to get stronger too. Chalk it up to the notorious St. Louis allergies, and kudos to him for fighting through it and finishing like a champ.
It’s hard to imagine anyone not finding plenty to enjoy in this jukebox musical of a little band who succeeded despite being almost too retro for their own era. Or maybe they were just grossly underrated. They outlasted The Beatles, after all.
For more information about “Jersey Boys” at The Muny and other upcoming favorites, please visit www.Muny.org.
Photos by Phillip Hamer
Not: Both Limelight reviewers Jeff Ritter and Lynn Venhaus are covering the Muny this season.