Rejoice, Rahway; Weehawken, be glad. After years as the butt of the nation’s jokes—and, more recently, a governor’s race that made Karl Rove’s tactics seem high-minded—the Garden State is getting a kiss from Broadway. The new musical Jersey Boys traces the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, along the way showering the band’s much-abused home state with love.
Well, tough love, anyway. A toxic-looking skyline looms over the stage, and walls of chain-link fence tower above the scene, the way trees do in other states. But it was here, on the unlovely (yet melodious) streets of an Italian neighborhood in North Jersey, that a thug turned guitarist, Tommy DeVito, and a bassist with a harmonic streak, Nick Massi, began forming a band. Add the divine falsetto of Frankie Valli and the songwriting gifts of Bob Gaudio, change names eight or ten times, and soon you’re selling records like the Beatles. “We put Jersey on the map,” crows DeVito.
They also put Jersey in the seats, to judge by the cheer that line drew when I saw the show. When the band played hits like “Sherry,” or made explicit reference to their Jersey roots, it sounded like a riot was unfolding in the mezzanine. Even among the high rollers in the orchestra seats, where signs of enthusiasm are regarded as arriviste, excitement abounded. The show has its weaknesses, God knows, but it succeeds in making the big, ornate August Wilson Theatre feel like a good indie-rock venue, filled with shared, tolerant joy.
Not to take anything away from the actual, you know, band, but the show’s charm is primarily Des McAnuff’s doing. The director has no illusions about what drives this sort of show. Jersey Boys may aim only to be a shallow, big-budget, crowd-pleasing jukebox musical, but it’s a model of the genre. Admire first the deftness of the storytelling by librettists Marshall Brickman (who co-wrote Annie Hall) and Rick Elice. From the hardscrabble early scenes, which mostly involve band members’ rotating in and out of jail (“the Rahway Academy of the Arts,” as the scholar-in-residence DeVito puts it), the script uses a Scorsese trick to race the action along: The boys’ narration propels the story by layering exposition right over the songs. Sugar and medicine are calibrated so finely that, almost before you realize it, the boys have traded their horrible clashing pink shirts for the true badge of early-sixties pop success, matching maroon blazers. Buongiorno, groupies.
Right to the end, the show threatens to collapse under Behind the Music clichés: fights over money, trouble with the missus. Yet aside from a treacly moment here or there, the script’s unique Jersey flavor makes it hard to resist. The band’s tumble from stardom comes not with the usual velour tracksuits and Percocet but with far more intriguing mob debts and neat-freaky fights over bathroom towels.
The real source of the show’s power—obvious as it sounds—is the songs. McAnuff shows a rare, laudable willingness to stick his finger in the electrical socket of pop music, to take full advantage of the band’s potent catalogue. Some hits, like the showstopping “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” are used to advance the plot; plenty of others, like “Walk Like a Man” and “Working My Way Back to You,” seem to be here only because fans would howl without them. You won’t get the next Carousel by thinking that way, but it does make for an amusing night at the theater.
Speaking of amusing, ever notice the unnerving vocal likeness between Frankie Valli and Axl Rose? John Lloyd Young lacks the born charisma to play the latter—should that bizarre opportunity ever present itself—but he has the falsetto and acting chops to evoke the former. The only obstacle to an endless run may turn out to be finding singers willing to maul their voices replacing him. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that, on the heels of this bridge-and-tunnel pop triumph, another casting call is under way. Right now some lucky producer is just one husky-voiced guitar player away from the smash opening of Born to Run.