Volume III, Issue III Autumn 2004

Working their way back to us

By Jim Trageser


Jersey Boys
Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music by Bob Gaudio
Lyrics by Bob Crewe
Directed by Des McAnuff

Mandell Weiss Theatre
La Jolla Playhouse
University of California, San Diego campus
Through January 16, 2005

The Four Seasons don't generally make most music critics' lists of best '60s rock groups. Heck, most people don't even remember them as one of the most popular acts of that era.

And so it's a bit of a surprise to see a new musical biography of Frank Valli and his bandmates on stage in its world premiere at the La Jolla Playhouse (the same company that gave us "The Who's Tommy," among other Broadway hits).

Jersey Boys But seeing "Jersey Boys" reminds us that The Four Seasons had almost 30 hits during the 1960s, and rivaled the Beatles and Beach Boys as the biggest bands of that iconized decade. In fact, the reaction after seeing this world premiere is likely to be wonder that this all-American story wasn't told earlier.

Beyond the music – song after song that the audience knows by heart – is a tale of a group of East Coast kids born on the wrong side of the tracks who nevertheless made it all the way to the top of the music biz.

The story by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice pulls few if any punches, and glosses over very little of the turbulent history of the band. Valli and mates Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio are presented with all their warts fully intact. Which isn't to say that this is a negative production – the story is full of admiration (and was written with the cooperation of the three surviving members), but it is nevertheless honest about that story.

The womanizing, boozing and drug use, as well as the prison time of various band members, and huge gambling and tax debt – all are an intrinsic part of the story, as important to understanding the music as is the boys' idealism and dreams.

The casting is for this initial production is spot-on. David Noroña nails the part of Valli, the tough little bantam rooster with the voice of an angel. Christian Hoff brings a sense of weariness to the part of DeVito, the street tough who makes it big only to lose it all again. And Daniel Reichard's portrayal of Gaudio, the composer for the band who believed in the music above all, captures a feel for devotion to artistry.

And these four actually sing the material – providing dead ringers for the band's biggest hits. Noroña, in particular, is phenomenal in handling Valli's parts.

The set (designed by Klara Zieglerova, with lighting by Howell Binkley) has a gritty, urban, East Coast feel to it – appropriate the band's New Jersey roots.

Interestingly, the storyline of "Jersey Boys" even touches on the above theme of the lack of critical praise for the band. The play points out that the Four Seasons were a blue-collar band – they made music for the kids who actually got sent to Vietnam. The groups that got all the positive press were those writing and singing protest songs for the middle-class kids with deferments.

Still, if The Four Seasons didn't have the music media in their corner, they had their fans. And four decades on, their music remains a glorious celebration of youthful love.

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