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THEATER REVIEW

Well-tuned engine

Four Seasons' songs and soap opera give `Jersey Boys' the power to rock the Ahmanson.

June 05, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

STANDING ovations are a dime a dozen in the theater these days, though not many shows can boast of setting one off midway through the second act. But then "Jersey Boys," the musical biography of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons that opened at the Ahmanson on Sunday, has a secret weapon that makes it virtually impossible for those wild and crazy baby boomers to stay planted in their seats -- the group's seemingly endless string of compulsive hits.

What drives the crowd prematurely to its feet is the unveiling of Valli's monster comeback song, the one the record company executives, who love the easy accessibility of "C'mon Marianne," are none too sure about -- "Can't Take My Eyes Off You." To judge by the reaction of the audience, this velvety classic doesn't just afford easy-listening pleasure, it encapsulates an era and reactivates the dreams of romantic youth.

There's no point in arguing with that kind of nostalgic ecstasy. For anyone who has ever danced to the Four Seasons at a prom or wedding, "Jersey Boys" will invoke a giddy delight that doesn't depend at all on the usual musical-theater ingredients for success.

Let's face it: With a Top 40 cornucopia like this, a wedding band could get the Ahmanson rocking. So Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's book often seems like a protracted VH1 "Behind the Music" special? Not a problem once the swaying is in full effect. And what's that you say? The lead, Christopher Kale Jones, doesn't really possess Valli's one-of-a-kind falsetto or Romeo magnetism? Harder to overlook, but Jones' strong voice can still rouse the ready, willing and able. And he grows on you like an "American Idol" contestant you want to see shine even though you're not likely to download any of his music once it's released.

When "Jersey Boys" opened on Broadway, it was a somewhat subtler experience, thanks to the emotionally naked performance of John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for capturing not just the inimitable sound of Valli but also his easily bruised Italian American soul. Equally memorable was Christian Hoff, who walked away with the featured actor Tony for his portrayal of Tommy DeVito, the group's colorful start-up force who has trouble evolving beyond the neighborhood way of doing things even after the Four Seasons become a national force.

Casting the show's Jersey Boys must be one of the tougher challenges in theater today. It's hard enough to find four guys who can do a convincing cover of the group's records, never mind lend depth to roles with a two-dimensional knockoff quality. These are characters that if played straight from the script would seem farfetched even for a Vegas lounge act.

The touring production at the Ahmanson is still the original, slickly entertaining Des McAnuff staging, but the human dimension has receded to the incidental scale one would expect from a soft-rock concert rather than the 2006 Tony winner for best musical. Generally speaking, the actors are content to play the broad outline of their characters and enjoy the automatic fanfare that comes with performing "Sherry" (the song that put the Four Seasons on the map), "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "My Eyes Adored You" and all the other pop chart meteors that have burned their way into our collective music unconscious.

An odd development is that Erich Bergen, who plays Bob Gaudio, the songwriting genius behind the Four Seasons -- and the band member who claims to be more comfortable working behind the scenes -- is the show's breakout star. His charisma feeds off the spotlight, and with his lanky good looks and vibrant intensity, he tends to eclipse the others in the musical numbers, which are choreographed by Sergio Trujillo to evoke the old '60s moves.

Just as the Four Seasons probably wouldn't have made it out of Belleville, N.J., without the hit-making of Gaudio, this version of the band almost certainly wouldn't have gotten much farther than Newark without the charm of Bergen, who fills the void left by Jones' amiable though low-wattage Valli.

Deven May's Tommy DeVito and Michael Ingersoll's Nick Massi (the self-confessed Ringo of the group) flirt with "Sopranos"-style stereotypes yet manage to keep things real in a way that completely eludes John Altieri, who plays record producer and lyricist Bob Crewe as though he were auditioning to be a new regular for "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy."

"Jersey Boys" inventories the group's ups and downs, from the career-rocketing appearance on "American Bandstand" to the inevitable personnel changes to Valli's return to the top of the charts and the refreshingly not-so-tearful reunion of the original Four Seasons at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Along the way, debt is racked up, marriages fall apart, and money and fame seem to take the fellows further and further from what they started with -- a sense of knowing where they belong.

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