Oh what a night it was for “Jersey Boys” at The Bushnell Wednesday night.
It’s more than a show about Frankie Valli (with an “i”) and the Four Seasons, though you’ll certainly enjoy it if you are a fan of hit songs like “December, 1963 (Oh What A Night),” “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” This musical has depth and Jersey grit, blending comedy and harsh reality.
The story is structured around – surprise, surprise – the four seasons, charting the rise and fall, and rise again, of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, as well as the tight and sometimes tenuous relationships the boys build and struggle with as they chase their dream parallel a rough and tumble life ridden with gang fraternization, debt, and bad habits that die hard.
“Jersey Boys” starts off in the spring, a season full of life and birth. Our first act narrator, Tommy DeVito (Matthew Dailey) discovers, protects, and builds Frankie Castelluccio (Aaron De Jesus) into a hit singer, taking him under his wing like his kid brother. Despite his short stature, the first thing you notice about Frankie is his angelic voice and high pitched falsetto. De Jesus channels Frankie Valli’s distinct vocal timbre well with cartoonish charm often reminiscent of “The Chipmunks.” But when you’re a guy who can sing higher than a soprano, flaunt it! While Frankie does get into some scrappy situations thanks to Tommy’s brushes with the law – a lot of break-ins and jewelry store robberies that land him in the slammer – his unsavory friends manage to get him off the streets and keep him out of serious trouble for the most part. It’s the music that really saves Frankie and gives him a more successful and upstanding life.
Then comes summer, the high life – a season of parties and fun. While our Four Seasons are certainly having a good time – as evidenced in the comical “Oh What a Night” scene when the group’s new nerdy, straight-laced songwriter, Bob Gaudio (Cory Jeacoma), writer of the hit “(Who Wears) Short Shorts,” has his first dalliance with a lady of the night – they are working hard. Particularly Frankie and Bob, who form a side deal to share the profits of any side gigs and outside songs Bob produces.
Tommy is still our narrator, as Dailey exudes his character’s godly, overinflated ego. It makes sense he is telling the story instead of the star – Frankie – because he takes credit for the success of the group and Valli. Unfortunately, with a rise there eventually comes a fall. Unbeknownst to the group, Tommy racks up 160 large in loans from his mobster friends and a half mill in unpaid taxes. The debt is the crisis that ends Act I and Act II chronicles the fallout of the situation.
Listening to the energy in the songs of the Four Seasons, you’d never think of all the trouble going on behind the scenes. That makes the story about more than the music. This is where life comes in. Fall is a season of both vibrant color and contradicting grimness, so it’s a suitable backdrop for the fall of the group and the struggles they face. Bob takes over a lot of the narrative as the man who writes the music and works with Frankie to get the music deals. We see Frankie’s relationship with his sassy, redheaded wife, Mary Delgado (Kristen Paulicelli), go south and the strained relationship with his daughter due to all of his time on the road. The boys learn to walk like men, though leading alternate lives on tour with other women and the band as their family.
Act II closes with winter, cold and colorless, yet serene. The mob sentences Tommy to live forever in Las Vegas to teach him a lesson, so he can never leave Nevada.
Frankie and the band take on Tommy’s debt. Frankie tours everywhere and plays at whatever gig he can to make money to pay off the money owed to the mob and the IRS.
Bob decides he doesn’t like performing and focuses solely on writing music – including a song different than anything of the time, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” that radio stations won’t play at first because of its unconventionality. That song goes on to sell millions and is one of the group’s biggest hits, with the horn section Frankie always wanted.
Then there’s the defining moment when Nick Massi (Keith Hines), the group’s Lurch-like bass who barely says anything or emotes, finally stands up for himself, speaks out about Tommy’s disgusting, towel-hogging hotel tendencies, and leaves the group because he said it and because he wants to go home. Sometimes the straight man in a comedy can be the funniest. The stoic, monotone voice and dry persona Hines pumps into the character juxtaposed against the hilarity of what he says makes Massi one of my favorite characters.
I adored the minor character of Joey (Pesci), a bowling alley attendant who fixes games for Tommy and recruits Bob for the group. His innocent, nerdy loyalty contrasted well with Dailey’s tough guy Tommy and knocked the comedy pins out of the bowling alley.
Barry Anderson was delightfully fierce as the flamboyant and particular music director, Bob Crewe, who eventually helps the Four Seasons record and get their music out there.
The music was a highlight, however the audio of the vocals sometimes overpowered the background music instead of blending the two, occasionally making it hard to understand the singers – particularly in the opening scene with the French versions of the songs.
Nostalgia and familiarity with the songs made me really connect with this musical and even though I couldn’t relate to the lives of the Four Seasons, I could empathize with their situations. This is a story that needed to be told. And this is a musical that you should see.
“Jersey Boys” runs through March 26 at The Bushnell in Hartford. For more information on the production and tickets, visit www.bushnell.org.