As seen from the New Jersey Turnpike, the grim industrial skyline has unfortunately served as a negative image for what is more agreeably referred to as the Garden State. But that is the only negative image projected in the vastly entertaining and celebratory new bio musical "Jersey Boys," the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Otherwise set designer Klara Zieglerova's functional metal construction, enhanced by pop art projections by Michael Clark, serves this authentic jukebox musical that doesn't compromise or insult your intelligence.
Under the gutsy, unfussy direction of Des McAnuff, realism has its day in the fact-based story of four talented young men who transcend their discouraging beginnings. The songs, under Ron Melrose' brisk direction and with terrific
orchestrations by Steve Orich, are thankfully never coerced into defining character but principally confined to their places as performance pieces. This is a jukebox musical in which an engrossing, carefully constructed plot with sharp dialogue is actually given heft by the interruptions of hit tunes.
The concerted excellence of the four principals is a major factor in this musical's success. The bravura performance by John Lloyd Young, as Frankie Valli, the extraordinary lead singer with the soprano voice, resonates with the most impact. Young, who is making his Broadway debut, delivers a dynamite portrayal of the boy who survives a bad marriage to an older woman, the bitter betrayal of one of his partners whose debts he undertakes to pay, and the tragic loss of his daughter. But just as the drama behind the music remains the propellant, Young's singing often and deservedly brings down the house. I suspect that the whistles and cheers come from many Jerseyites.
While three of the boys - Frankie Valli (Newark), Nick Massi (Newark), and Tommy DeVito (Belleville) - are natives of New Jersey, the fourth, Bronx-born Bob Gaudio, was undoubtedly validated because he was living in Bergen County when he joined the musical group through an introduction initiated by an obnoxiously pushy kid named Joe Pesci (Michael Longoria). That's right. Pesci was destined to be a movie star and the future employer of DeVito, who hit the skids after leaving the group in 1970. Heavily in debt to the mob and essentially exiled to Las Vegas, DeVito was a sterling singer/guitarist, but nevertheless a hood at heart. In this musical that gives equal opportunity to each of the Jersey boys, DeVito, as played by Christian Hoff with the brass of a mob soldier right out of the Sopranos TV series, gets first crack at telling the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
The so-called jukebox musical genre has been taking it on the chin - whether successful like "Mamma Mia" or walloped at the box-office like "Good Vibrations" and "All Shook Up." What gives "Jersey Boys" its authority and superiority over the others is not the expectedly exhilarating staging of the popular songs but our growing affection for this group that produced over $100
million in sales. In the end, however, it is the honest and affecting book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice that provides some real insights into the colliding personalities of these immensely talented young men.
Considering that the show takes into account four points of view, it is remarkably cohesive despite altering the perspective with generous doses of grit, cleverness, and warmth. Despite the fact that there are 33 songs listed, many given in bits and pieces, the signature songs are fully considered and make their prescribed impact.
An unexpectedly coarse but credible tone is established at the outset as DeVito, with his proclivity for planning and carrying out heists, leads his gullible pals astray and lands him and Massi in the clink. Massi (J. Robert Spencer), who would create the vocal arrangements for the group, sing bass, and play bass guitar, is poignantly revealed as the most conflicted regarding his loyalty to the bossy DeVito.
The biggest dramatic moment comes when Massi vents all his pent-up anger at the astonished DeVito after years of putting up with his being a slob and a two-timer. Spencer also reveals a melancholy side to Massi and his unhappiness with life on the road and with his role with the Four Seasons ("I'm the Ringo of the band"). He offers a refreshing look at a rock star who was not into drugs and groupies. There is a contained coolness to Daniel Reichard's portrayal of Gaudio, the gifted songwriter who turns out to be the most level-headed and the brains of the group and proves it as he challenges DeVito's inept and shady wheeling and dealing. But Reichard's performance is perhaps most notable for the focused intensity that appears to drive Gaudio to success.
Humor is nicely threaded through the narratives. Very funny, indeed, is Gaudio's explanation of how he came up with the title for one of their biggest hits. While watching an old western on TV, he hears Rhonda Fleming tell John Payne, "Big girls don't' cry." All the songs, beginning with their first big hit "Sherry," and including "Walk Like a Man," "My Eyes Adored You," "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You," manages to be or come close to being show-stoppers. Record producer Crewe is relegated to the background despite his real life importance as a musical collaborator with Gaudio, but Gregus gives him an insinuating theatricality.
Although the women in the lives of these men are never more than peripheral, Jennifer Naimo, Erica Piccininni, and Sara Schmidt make good impressions in multiple roles. Sergio Trujillo's choreography affectionately recreates the essential body language of the time. Jess Goldstein's costumes wittily reinvent mid-20th century chic. The Jersey Boys Orchestra supplies the kind of super backup needed for a super show.
Jersey Boys, August Wilson Theater (formerly Virginia Theater), 245 W. 52nd Street, $66.25 to $101.25, 212-239-6200.
A Soldier's Play
Charles Fuller's 1982 Pulitzer Prize-winning drama "A Soldier's Play" is a prime example of a well-written murder mystery. After 23 years, it doesn't seem to have lost any of its riveting power. Never having seen the 1984 film version, re-titled "A Soldier's Story" - which commendably re-cast Denzel Washington, who appeared in the original Negro Ensemble Company's Off-Broadway production - only fragments of what I remember being a fine regional production at Montclair's Whole Theater Company in 1983 linger in my mind.
It is almost impossible not to be mesmerized by the hammer and tongs investigation into the murder of a despised African-American Army officer. The inquiry by another African-American lawyer sent to the scene of the crime becomes a scorching and purging take on the seeds of racism, bigotry, and social injustice as it affects a black regiment stationed at Fort Neal, Louisiana, in 1944. Given the issues of social inequality and apathy that have ironically surfaced in the light of the present post-Katrina debacle, the play resonates with even more chilling and sobering truths. Perhaps this is why it seems like a new play.
From the opening gunshots that end the life of Tech/Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (James McDaniel), a mean-spirited disciplinarian ashamed of his background and his race, and throughout the informal hearings that bring witness after witness - both black and white, in flashbacks and the present - the drama builds its case. It is, however, less about trapping the perpetrator than it is about exposing the malevolent forces and abrasive personalities surrounding the act itself.
As the swift concise scenes follow one another, the evidence of the sergeant's pathology seems less clear. The investigating Capt. Davenport (Taye Diggs) uncovers, at first incidentally and then more aggressively, the seemingly
contradictory personality of the victim through the careful and agonizing interrogation of the suspects.
One by one the enlisted men respond and gradually reveal the deepening complexity of the investigation: the high-strung, talkative Private James Wilkie (Michael Genet); the gullible, guitar-strumming farm boy Private C.J. Memphis (Mike Colter); the antagonistic, unflinching Private First Class Melvin Peterson (Anthony Mackie); two uncompromisingly bigoted white officers, Lieutenant Byrd (Joaquin Perez-Campbell) and Captain Wilcox (Joe Forbrich); and Peterson's squirming sidekick, Private Tony Smalls (Teagle F. Bougere). All have ample motives, and with raw-edged barracks-style realism, all become spokesmen for playwright Fuller's provocative inquiries into more crimes than initially meet the eye.
The excellent performances of Messrs. McDaniel and Diggs, paradoxically opposing types, are key elements to the success of this revival. There is a sense of emotional restraint in Diggs' performance that occasionally suggests Captain Davenport to be more of a symbol than a part of the incendiary elements in action around him. However, Diggs' calculated and muted performance remains a dominant force. McDaniel's volatile, highly-charged performance leaves little doubt about Waters's conflicted personality. And his presence, even when he is not onstage, is palpable.
There are virtually no supporting roles - only virtuoso performances. Mackie, who made such excellent impressions in recent seasons in less than impressive plays such as McReele and Drowning Crow, brings a stunningly incendiary dynamic to the rebellious and recklessly insubordinate Peterson (the role that Denzel Washington originated). Being large and muscular doesn't detract from Colter's poignant performance as the unsophisticated, ill-fated C.J. Memphis.
Pasquale invests the arrogant commanding officer Captain Charles Taylor with just enough condescension. His scenes with the persistent Davenport boil with tension. Taylor is convinced that the murder was committed by two white officers while the African-American soldiers believe it was an act of the Klan. Another standout performance is registered by Genet as the outwardly jovial "brown nose" Wilkie who may be harboring some deep-seated anger ever since Waters took away his stripes for being drunk on guard duty. As the white officers, Perez-Campbell and Forbrich are appropriately scary and offensive.
Under Jo Bonney's taut yet fluid direction, the actors share a common discipline that leads directly to the core of each of their characters without stealing the thunder from one another. Within the confines of Neil Patel's simple oval-shaped barracks (effectively lighted by David Zinn), the strong ensemble reflects the truth and nothing but the truth.
Bonney, who has a flair for tough drama, maintains a firm grip on the tense, one-on-one scenes even as she encourages the actors toward some unaffected freedom and an honest naturalism in the lighter moments. This hand-grenade of a play explodes with contemporary force despite being set in 1944. This is one revival that would do Broadway proud.
A Soldier's Play, through November 27 with a possible extension, Second Stage, 307 West 43rd Street. $65. 212-246-4422.