Now playing at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway.
I am not the target audience for this musical. At 26, I am less than half the age of the average nostalgic Jersey Boys theatergoer. I grew up in the sunny sprawl of Orlando, Florida, not the hardscrabble streets of New Jersey. Furthermore, Frankie Valli’s overbearing, nasal falsetto in “Walk Like a Man,” the only Four Seasons song I could confidently name before seeing this show, makes me want to stab an ice pick through my skull — or his.
Yet Jersey Boys entertained me in spite of all that, in spite of myself. Not all of the music is to my taste — I still consider “Walk Like a Man” one of the more egregiously awful pop concoctions ever inflicted upon the American public — but some of songwriter Bob Gaudio’s later compositions intrigued me, and if nothing else, the story of the foursome is fascinating.
In an inspired touch, each of the founding members of the Four Seasons narrates a “season” in the history of the band. Founder Tommy DeVito (Christian Hoff) describes the group’s origins. Singer-songwriter Gaudio (Daniel Reichard) recalls their rise to stardom. Nick Massi (J. Robert Spencer) explains how the group split apart. And finally, Valli (John Lloyd Young), the indispensable lead singer, recounts some of his own personal history and the Four Seasons’ establishment in the pantheon of American popular music.
The musical plays like a string of a staged autobiographies, in good ways and bad. Each narrator has a distinct perspective and a warts-and-all sensibility: The level of detail is truly impressive. I have no way of knowing for sure, but Jersey Boys certainly gives the impression of impeccable research and in-depth interviews with all four men.
Inevitably, the chronological storytelling rambles. No one’s life makes a perfect dramatic arc, and with multiple subjects, Jersey Boys meanders more than an individual life story. Some of the digressions are fascinating, and others … not so much. Fortunately, the musical moves energetically and seamlessly from one scene to the next. The action never stops.
The music never stops for long either. Jersey Boys features at least a verse or two of virtually every chart-topper the group ever had, so it has a lot to cover. Like the men they are portraying, Hoff, Reichard, Spencer and Young blend beautifully and sing with contagious enthusiasm. Young has the daunting challenge of recreating Valli’s remarkable voice — unforgettable whether you love it or hate it — and he succeeds brilliantly, nailing the older man’s unearthly head tone.
I must have spent half the show trying to sort out my thoughts about Valli’s voice. Particularly in the earlier songs, it has a bizarre timbre. It doesn’t sound like a man’s voice (giving the obnoxious “Walk” an amusing shade of irony), but it doesn’t sound like a woman’s voice or a boy’s voice or a typical falsetto either. The sheer weirdness of it fascinates me, but I enjoy it more in the later songs, such as “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” when Valli becomes more recognizably human, a brash countertenor instead of an indescribable alien.
What I enjoyed most about Jersey Boys, though, was the behind-the-scenes look at Gaudio’s songwriting. The musical introduces the singer-songwriter by noting that he wrote his first hit song — the cringe-worthy “Short Shorts,” now best known as a depilatory cream jingle — when he was 15. I admit that’s impressive, but “Short Shorts” still doesn’t strike me as a clear omen of musical genius. Yet over the two decades or so dramatized by the musical, Gaudio’s songs for the Four Seasons improve exponentially. The lyrics (which, to be fair, Gaudio didn’t write) stop enforcing stupid gender stereotypes , and the music features increasingly unusual melodic lines, richer and more complex harmonic progressions, and tighter and tighter harmonies.
In fact, by the end of the show, I had developed considerable respect and fondness for Gaudio and a genuine appreciation of Valli and his fellow Seasons. I was stunned: Jersey Boys had convinced me to appreciate the voice of “Walk Like a Man” and the writer of “Short Shorts.” I never would have thought it possible.