michael lomenda, jeff madden, quinn vanantwerp
and daniel robert sullivan.
I’ve developed a bit of a reputation in the musical theatre community for my strong aversion to “Jukebox” musicals. Their cheesy overblown plots and cartoonish characters both bore and infuriate me, especially since intellectually satisfying musicals with original scores seem to be the casualty in this ever-growing and increasingly frightening trend. Mamma Mia boasts of being the first musical I ever disliked (when I saw the production here in Toronto at seventeen, despite the fact that I freely admit my love of ABBA), I found We Will Rock You offensive to my heart (again, despite my love of Queen) and I had to change the channel during last year’s Tony Award Broadcast when the cast of Rock of Ages was performing. I’ve come to accept that Jukebox musicals just aren’t my thing. What I did not adequately realize before Tuesday night, however, is that Jersey Boys, the smash hit DanCap musical that has been playing at the Toronto Centre for the Arts for nearly two years, is not a Jukebox show.
Jersey Boys, which was written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, with music by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, and opened on Broadway in 2005, going on to win four Tony Awards including Best Musical (2006), is actually at its heart a play. On the surface, Jersey Boys is about the rise to fame of the 1960s Rock n’ Roll Group The Four Seasons and their songs pepper the musical to draw their fans to the Broadway show, and to allow them to revisit their past and to immerse themselves in an evening of nostalgia. Yet, ultimately Jersey Boys is a story about a rich and complicated friendship between four men, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi, Tommy DeVito and Frankie Valli, whose loyalty to one another and to their music was continually strengthened and tested in the face of celebrity, success, addiction and life on the road.
The Four Season’s songs are not feebly forced into this musical to advance a makeshift plot like puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit, but rather are used predominately as diegetic music, that is, music that realistically belongs in the world of the play. Unlike in most musical theatre productions where characters burst into song because words can no longer capture the height of their emotions and their singing belongs in a special musical fantasy world that the audience accepts to be a convention of the genre, in Jersey Boys the music belongs in the real world of the characters, as these are songs that they literally rehearse and perform as Rock n’ Roll stars. The music is also used cleverly by the writers as a commentary on the action of the play and it is brilliant how songs originally conceived as love songs can shift within the context of the musical to reflect the friendship and the business partnerships of the boys.
What distinctly elevates Jersey Boys as something of more substance than the average Jukebox musical is its four specific, vivid and strong lead characters. It is in the portrayal of these four men that the musical is entirely hinged and Toronto’s cast is absolutely exquisite. Michael Lomenda plays Nick Massi, the self described Ringo Starr of the group, with a unique combination of quiet gruffness and a sullenness akin to Brad Garrett’s constantly overlooked Robert Barone from Everybody Loves Raymond. Lomenda’s Nick transitions nicely between seizing specific moments in the spotlight and then fading entirely into the background. Quinn VanAntwerp is boyish charm personified as the modest pillar of decency and musical genius Bob Gaudio. His voice is absolutely delicious and his beautifully nuanced portrayal of Gaudio pulls the audience resolutely to his side. Daniel Robert Sullivan is pure magic as Tommy DeVito. Truly, he is New Jersey incarnate in this role, with an incredible accent and this unmistakably American command of not only himself, but of the three other boys and the American language itself. It is fascinating to watch this character evolve and how brilliantly Sullivan is able to convey such subtlety, and even traces of vulnerability, in a character with such a larger than life intensity that is so reliant on a reputation for toughness to survive. Jeff Madden is utterly delightful as the charismatic Frankie Valli who grows from a bashful boy with the voice of an angel to the self possessed and fiercely loyal singing sensation who would emerge as a successful solo star with Gaudio’s hit tune “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in 1967. Madden is truly a revelation in this role. He has perfectly captured Valli’s unique voice and his falsetto is simply to die for as it soars dreamily through the theatre for the entire show. Together, Lomenda, VanAntwerp, Sullivan and Madden’s voices unite in musical bliss that induce genuine Goosebumps. Also noteworthy in the cast are Cleopatra Williams as Valli’s hilariously brazen first wife Mary Delgado and Bryan Hindle whose comic timing is flawless as eager beaver Joey Pesci (yes, *that* Joe Pesci).
Des McAnuff directs the musical with a brilliant energy that captures the essence of The Four Season’s music, although he also makes a few unexpected and interesting choices, such as a number of instances when the performers have their backs to the audience, which gives the Jersey Boys’ world a specific three-dimensionality. There are also elements of signature star power, such as the moment when Lomenda, VanAntwerp, Sullivan and Madden rise up from an elevator beneath the stage, whilst singing in perfect harmony. Sergio Trujillo’s chorography is sharp and minimalist, but thoroughly dynamic and brilliantly executed by the cast.
Jersey Boys is ultimately a fun evening at the theatre. The music has the power to sweep the audience away and the performances have had the ability to floor, awe and invigorate one million audience members in the past 22 months. Yet, for me what makes Jersey Boys so captivating is the arc of the story and characters that I feel are genuinely compelling and interesting to watch. In this way, as a musical and as a play with music, it is clear that Jersey Boys has the best of both worlds.
DanCap’s Jersey Boys is enjoying an open-ended run at the Toronto Centre for the Arts (5040 Yonge Street). For more information about this show and the rest of DanCap’s Season please call 416.644.3665 or visit http://www.dancaptickets.com/.