At the Ahmanson, ‘Jersey Boys’ puts another quarter in the jukebox
“Jersey Boys,” that perennial jukebox moneymaker, is back at the Ahmanson Theatre for reasons that are easily surmised. The coffers at Center Theatre Group are clearly crying out for replenishing, but you won’t hear any complaints from me, not with the catalog of Four Seasons hits still echoing in my mind.
The pleasures of this touring show, a faded but not ineffective copy of the original Tony-winning production, are chiefly nostalgic. This is baby boomer bait in its most blatant form.
But in the context of a refreshingly risky 2016-17 Ahmanson season (which began with Ivo van Hove’s deconstruction of “A View From the Bridge,” included the lesbian coming-of-age musical “Fun Home” and concludes this summer with “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”), a “Jersey Boys” box-office insurance policy is understandable.
The production’s selling point is Mark Ballas (a regular hoofer on “Dancing With the Stars”), who reprises his performance of Frankie Valli, a role that is one of the toughest to sing in the contemporary musical theater repertoire. Valli’s signature falsetto requires tremendous vocal athleticism. Ballas, who was one of the replacements on Broadway after Tony winner John Lloyd Young left the cast, knows his crooning way around a high note, but there are so many numbers that have to be knocked out of the park, starting with “Sherry,” the song in which the Four Seasons finally discovered its distinctive sound.
The wear and tear on Ballas’ voice started to show in the second act, but his handling of his character’s big comeback number, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” had the audience hooting and hollering in ecstasy. Ballas looks and sounds the part, which is 90% of the job. (Valli, who greeted the audience at the curtain call, seemed to be peering through time at a younger version of himself.)
The characterizations aren’t as textured in this incarnation of Des McAnuff’s production. The cast members all fill the bill in a show that may not make strenuous acting demands but offers opportunities for performers not just to impersonate but to personalize their famous roles.
The musical, which features a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, music by Bob Gaudio and lyrics by Bob Crewe, strings together its jukebox gold with more narrative finesse than “Mamma Mia!” (the international cash cow that threatened to turn Broadway into an easy-listening theme park in the early 2000s). Gaudio (Cory Jeacoma) and Crewe (Barry Anderson) are, of course, characters in this behind-the-scenes story of the New Jersey rise, Las Vegas languishing and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame redemption of a group of Italian American guys from a town in which the only options were the military, the mob or, if you’re super lucky and super talented, the music biz.
Valli had the talent, but it took Gaudio’s songwriting genius to allow that talent to flourish. Nick Massi (Keith Hines) had genuine musical chops and old neighborhood cred. And Tommy DeVito (Matthew Dailey), a thug guy with a dream, was the force that brought the group together only to drive it apart with his financial recklessness and need to dominate.
Crewe, a producer with an instinct for what would sell, took this ragtag band under his industry tutelage. Their roller coaster story is dramatized with a theatrically shrewd obviousness that delivers the laughs, cheers and tears like clockwork.
If I missed the way Young was able to convey aspects of Valli’s psychological character in his singing or the streetwise manner in which Tony winner Christian Hoff commandeered Tommy’s narrator role, or the way Erich Bergen’s concentrated virtuosity revealed Gaudio’s brilliance (in the touring production that came to the Ahmanson in 2007), I found more than enough contentment in “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “December, 1963” and “Working My Way Back to You.”
I’m ready to retire from reviewing “Jersey Boys,” but how could I resist one last hurrah? The show overflows with music that both captures a generation and transcends it with a passion, drive and energy that will never go out of style.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays; ends June 24 (call for exceptions)
Tickets: $25-$130 (subject to change)
Information: (213) 972-4400 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: 2 hour and 35 minutes (including intermission)
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