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Sunday, April 21, 2013

Jersey Boys: Transcending Musical

My wife and I finally got to see Jersey Boys at the August Wilson Theater on Broadway last night, thanks to the tickets daughter Molly gave us as my birthday present.  I say "finally" because The Four Seasons were among my all-time favorite groups.   And a wonderful, one-of-a-kind birthday present it was.

The Four Seasons were a pivotal group in my life - my own group, The Transits, regularly sung "Dawn" and "Rag Doll" in our performances at various spots in the Bronx in the early 1960s, including Poe Park and the corner of Allerton Avenue and White Plains Road under the el.  Their harmony and Franki Valli's falsetto were second to none, and I modeled my own falsetto after his. For a few years, The Four Seasons were right up there with the Beachboys, matching them hit for hit.  But the two groups were soon surpassed by the Beatles, which had easy superiority in lyrics, inventive chord progressions, and even harmony.   And while the Beachboys managed to make their own signal contributions to the psychedelic era, thanks to Brian Wilson, and "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains," The Four Seasons and Franki Valli veered off into a kind of pop with songs like "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," which sounded more like Andy Williams than the Four Seasons I loved, which is to say, hopelessly old-fashioned to me.   But "Candy Girl," "Dawn," "Rag Doll" (breathtakingly glorious harmonies), "Big Man in Town," "Marlena," "Silence is Golden," and "Tell it to the Rain," and their transcendence of the doo wop genre have never been far from my ears in my brain since then.

Jersey Boys was fabulous, not only because it provided superb renditions of many of these songs, but because it told a story - researched and written by Marshall Brickman - which I hadn't known before.  Frank Valli and two of the other Seasons (Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi) had served a little time in prison - they came from a much grittier culture than their polished harmony suggested.   Each member of the group had a strong personality and set of opinions, which often conflicted.   I'd known that Bob Gaudio was the creative writing genius of the group - and had loved his "Short Shorts" with the Royal Teens when I was kid - but I hadn't known he had to fight so hard at first to get into The Four Seasons.  I would have liked to have seen a little more in Jersey Boys about Bob Crewe's creative input as producer of The Four Seasons - I met Crewe one or two times in the 1960s - but overall the play gave due shrift to all the important players in their success.

And the performances were wonderful - especially of the players of each of The Four Seasons, who spoke and sang powerfully.   Especially noteworthy last night was Russell Fischer, understudy for the Franki Vallie role, who rose to the occasion with a stunning portrayal and a full-voiced and falsetto'd splendid rendition of the songs - it's hard to image that anyone could do better in the singing, dancing, and acting.   Andy Karl as Tommy DeVito, bass-man Matt Bogart (who appears as JFK on "Smash" on NBC) as Nick Massi, and especially Drew Gehling as Bob Gaudi were also superb.

The combination of songs and story - highs and lows, personal and professional - make Jersey Boys a musical masterpiece for the ages.

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