Saturday, June 24, 2023

"Jersey Boys" at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres

Jersey Boys is my musical theater guilty pleasure, and the exception that proves the rule about jukebox musicals. Meaning, I'm not usually a fan of taking popular hit songs and creating a musical around them; I much prefer new original musical theater. Except for Jersey Boys, which I can't help but love and see nearly every time the Broadway tour came to town (four, although I missed last year's tour). After running for over 11 years, the Tony-winning musical closed on Broadway in 2017, but continued to tour the country for several more years. The reason I love it is not just because of the fantastically catchy music of Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the sharp choreography, and the retro fashions. But also because all of this is put together very smartly in the true story of the group, dealing with the good and the bad of fame and living in the music industry.* Leave it to Chanhassen Dinner Theatre's Artistic Director Michael Brindisi to snap up the rights to the show as soon as it became available for regional productions, making this their second regional premiere this year, after the super fun and heart-warming The Prom (which closed just a week before Jersey Boys began performances). It's great fun to see a different take on this show that I love and am so familiar with. As always, the Chan delivers a top-notch production of this musical that is sure to be a crowd-pleaser (but one with substance) for the next eight months (click here for info and tickets).

Book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice used the title of the group as inspiration for the structure of the musical. The Four Seasons' story is told in four chapters by each of the group's original members. Founder Tommy DeVito narrates the "spring" of the group's life, in which he and his friends are in and out of jail, working with the mob on the streets of New Jersey. He tries several different band arrangements, all centered around the sweet falsetto of young Frankie Valli. Eventually he hits upon a winning combination, adding bass player Nick Massi, songwriter Bob Gaudio, and producer Bob Crewe (Gaudio and Crewe are credited with writing the music and lyrics for the show). "Sherry" is their first number one hit, and the group's fame skyrockets as Bob Gaudio takes over the narration in the "summer" chapter. More hits, television appearances, adoring fans - their dream has come true. But things begin to "fall" apart as tensions within the group rise and Tommy's large debt is revealed. In the second act Nick takes us through this stage of the journey that leaves only Frankie and Bob left in the group. Finally, Frankie narrates the group's poignant final chapter, "winter," that sees much loss but eventual reconciliation as the group reunites for their 1990 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. It's a roller coaster ride through fame, success, and their aftermath.*

Sam Stoll, David Darrow, Will Dusek, and Shad Hanley
(photo by Dan Norman)
The Four Seasons had dozens of hit songs in the '60s, and many of them are included in the musical. "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," " My Eyes Adored You," " Beggin'," and "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" to name just a few. With a few exceptions, the songs are not sung in that musical theater "I'm breaking out in song in the middle of a conversation and singing my thoughts and feelings" sort of way, but rather within the context of a concert, rehearsal, or recording session, so that it falls more towards the "play with music" end of the music-theater spectrum. This musical isn't structured in the typical scene-song-applause kind of way; the music is woven organically into the story, and sometimes we just hear snippets of songs interspersed with narration. The audience isn't given a chance to applaud at the end of every song, so when the first big number came towards the end of the first act, as the boys sang "Sherry" and paused after that final note, the audience burst into enthusiastic applause we'd been holding in for the first part of the show.*

Because of Frankie Valli's very specific vocal style and range, one would think it would be a tough role to cast. But they found a good one in Will Dusek, a recent college graduate making his CDT debut. As is said about Frankie in the show, he sings like an angel, smoothly going into and out of falsetto. He looks young, easily believable as the 16-year-old Frankie at the start of the show. But I was a little worried that he wouldn't be able to pull off the older version of the character as we traverse through the decades, but he did. He came back after intermission with slicked back hair, some of that youthful energy traded in for a world-weariness, and conveyed the grief, loss, and disappointment of Frankie's later years that was as believable as his youth. 

Also making his CDT debut, but very familiar to #TCTheater audiences from his performances with the Guthrie, Theater Latte Da, and 7th House Theater (a company he co-founded), is David Darrow. He gives my favorite performance of the show as Tommy, the group's self-described founder. He has the humor, the drive, the darkness, and the voice for this complicated character, who could be seen as the "bad guy" in lesser hands. Instead we feel for Tommy, despite his questionable choices. When Tommy leaves the group after getting into some trouble, David's absence is palpably felt. Although the show is running through February, David is only here for the summer and will be returning to graduate studies in NYC in the fall. I'm sure they'll find an excellent replacement for him, but if you can get there this summer - do.

the boys recording with producer Bob Crewe (Mark King)
(photo by Dan Norman)
Completing the foursome are Shad Hanley (fresh off of a four-month run in The Prom) as the bass Nick Massi and Sam Stoll as songwriter Bob Gaudio. Shad embodies the strong silent type until Nick's turn to speak comes up, and we find out that his priorities are different from the group's. Sam's winning smile makes Bob easy to like, and he sings one of my favorite songs of the show, "Cry for Me," beautifully (not to mention performing all of the choreography behind/with a keyboard on wheels).

darker days for the boys (Shad Hanley, Will Dusek, Sam Stoll, 
David Darrow, Michael Gruber, and Jon Andrew Hegge)
(photo by Dan Norman)
Everyone else in this cast of over two dozen plays multiple roles. One not great thing about Jersey Boys is that there really are no decent female roles, but the women in this cast do the best with what they're given, including Andrea Mislan as Frankie's wife, Laura Rudolph as his journalist girlfriend, and favorites Maureen Sherman-Mendez and Ann Michels with several small but fun character moments. Other highlights include Chan favorites Tony Vierling in a comic turn as a young Joe Pesci (yes, that Joe Pesci), Michael Gruber as the boys' mobster supporter like something out of The Godfather, and Mark King as Bob Crewe. And one final kudo to Matthew Hall for that scene-stealing wail in "Oh What a Night" that is happily reprised post curtain call.

Jersey Boys covers a lot of time and locations, and director Michael Brindisi moves us through them all smoothly and clearly. There's a little less flash and technical elements than in the Broadway production, but at no detriment to the storytelling. The set features a cool scaffolding spanning the entire stage, creating a second story for scenes and also some interesting spaces below it (scenic design by Nayna Ramey). Music Director Andy Kust leads the fabulous ten-piece band visible at the back of the stage; I only wish there were more of them, and I'd happily trade a few ensemble members for a few more brass players. When Frankie finally gets the horn section he's been wanting in "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," five actors come out on the scaffolding and mime playing those horns, but there's only one trumpet and two woodwinds sitting back in the orchestra. I would have loved to see real musicians come out on stage playing their horns so that the musical power matched the visual power of that moment.

I can't resist men in sharp suits performing crisp choreography, and this show has a lot of it. Resident costume designer Rich Hamson is responsible for the former and much more, including more casual looks for the boys, and dozens, probably hundreds, of fun '60s and '70s era costumes. Resident choreographer Tamara Kangas Erickson is responsible for the latter, with those iconic '60s boy band moves.

Chanhassen Dinner Theatres is known for their classic musicals (the Josephs, the Music Mans, etc.), but it's great to see them doing new shows as well. After Jersey Boys, they'll be doing their third regional premiere in a row - Beautiful. This Carole King bio-musicals is one of many that the success of Jersey Boys' inspired, and it's one of the better ones. But in the meantime, enjoy the true story, the nostalgia, the hard look at the cost of fame, and the incredible music of Jersey Boys, playing now through February.