Review: 'Jersey Boys' better than the real thing

By Vladimir Bunoan,

Posted at Jan 16 2013 11:56 AM | Updated as of Jan 16 2013 07:56 PM

The Four Seasons record a song in a scene from the musical "Jersey Boys." Handout photo by Joan Marcus

The term “jukebox musical,” with all its derogatory implications, doesn’t thoroughly apply to “Jersey Boys,” a musical about – and featuring the music of – the ‘60s group The Four Seasons and its lead singer, Frankie Valli.

While this Tony winner for best musical in 2006 also rides on the nostalgia train -- which has arrived in Singapore where “Jersey Boys” is playing until next month -- there is certainly more to this international stage hit than the crowd-pleasing chart-toppers “Walk Like A Man” and “Sherry.”

“Jersey Boys” is less “Mamma Mia,” with its madcap plot and disco-dancing-in-the-aisles finale, and more “Dreamgirls,” which is also about the making of a ‘60s group, widely believed to have been inspired by Diana Ross and the Supremes – with a Mafia backstory thrown in for good measure.

Some songs were utilized more for dramatic effect. For instance, “My Eyes Adored You,” a solo hit for Valli, was used to dramatize his divorce from his wife Mary, although in real life that song was released many years later.

But many of the group’s hits were performed in the show concert-style as it charts the success of the Four Seasons, giving “Jersey Boys” the added appeal of a greatest-hits show by a tribute band.

Make that an excellent tribute band. The actors brilliantly harmonize such that it almost feels like listening to the actual group. And when Grant Almirall as Valli gets ready for the much-anticipated “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” it becomes a magical stage moment that’s both a Broadway showstopper and a much-awaited concert encore. To borrow a line from the song, it was too good to be true.

Behind the music

Playwrights Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman (who co-wrote the movies “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan” with Woody Allen) fashioned “Jersey Boys” more as a behind-the scenes documentary, using the four seasons – winter, spring, summer, fall – as a device to neatly tell the story of the group’s rise and fall -- and rise again.

Each “season” is narrated and told from the point of view of one group member, as they trace the group’s turbulent history from its beginnings as a trio in the streets of New Jersey before they discovered Valli, then a teenager. But it was when they recruited songwriter Bob Gaudio (who is credited as the musical’s composer) that the Four Seasons conquered the charts.

However, their connections to the mob began to haunt them, which eventually led to the group’s breakup -- and the rise of Valli as a solo star.

The musical ends with the group’s induction to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

While the group’s story is compelling in itself, Elice and Brickman added some personal episodes to spice up the proceedings – from Gaudio losing his virginity to Valli mourning the death of his daughter from a drug overdose.

The snappy dialogue served in that familiar Jersey accent with the Italian-American brand of machismo also props up the musical when the actors are not performing the hits.

Swift changes

Director Des McAnuff, who wowed critics and audiences with his stage adaptation of The Who’s “Tommy,” certainly knows how to present a real pop score. There is a kinetic feel to “Jersey Boys” with his swift scene changes – sets and props seem to zip through the stage in a flash – and unusual blocking.

Many of the musical performances depicted in the musical were actually TV appearances and McAnuff blocked the actors as if they were taping for TV and also shows the performance on a video screen.

He even shifted perspective on one song, showing the Four Seasons from the back, basking in the spotlight.

Klara Zieglerova’s two-storey industrial set was also functional, versatile and added a modern vibe, while the pop-art video projections seemed retro-cool.

Soon in the Philippines?

The current production playing in Singapore is imported from South Africa – as did the Manila touring production of “The Phantom of the Opera.” After the Singapore run ends next month, “Jersey Boys” will reportedly return to South Africa before embarking on an international tour.

According to theater insiders, a promoter is considering bringing “Jersey Boys” to Manila sometime this year but is said to be worried about the musical’s lack of broad appeal as young theatregoers may not be familiar with the songs of the Four Seasons.

Given, however, the continuous success of Philippine concerts featuring musical acts from the ‘50s and ‘60s, one can’t underestimate the spending capacity of Manila’s baby-boomers.

And, at this point, watching “Jersey Boys” is probably far more enjoyable than watching the real Valli and the Four Seasons. Oh, what a night, indeed.

“Jersey Boys” runs at Marina Bay Sands' Grand Theatre until February 17.