April 12, 2012
You may feel like they never went away, but the lively, young, blue-collar gentlemen of the Garden State, ever working their way back to you, have returned to Chicago's Bank of America Theatre for a nine-week stand.
That's a healthy reprise for “Jersey Boys,” coming on top of the initial Chicago run of a mere two-and-half years. And when you're running that long in Chicago, where international tourists are thinner on the ground, you're reaching a pretty hefty percentage of the local population.
So if you were one of the 1.3 million people who saw the theatrical story of Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi during that 2007-10 engagement, and I bet you are, and you are contemplating another go-around with the sweetie who loves you, a big juicy steak on the town and some bonding time with the big-ticket “Bye Bye Baby” boys, you'll want to know if the national tour compares sufficiently favorably with the dedicated Chicago company, so as not to let you and yours down.
Absolutely it does. Guaranteed. There are no non-Equity ringers nor fake computerized pap; Valli and Gaudio would not stand for that. Sure, the physical production of the tour, designed for a variety of spaces, is slightly smaller (and, alas, the boys no longer rise up through the floor, which is a shame), but let's face it, nobody is going to “Jersey Boys” to look at director Des McAnuff's trademark platforms, trusses and trestles.
You're going to hear the music, which the famously meticulous Gaudio has always demanded sound exactly like it sounded in the recordings of the Four Seasons, and thus exactly like it sounds in the soundtrack of people's memories. That's still the case.
Joseph Leo Bwarie, the current Frankie, is one of the premiere Frankies of the franchise, for this show, soon to also be a movie, is most certainly now a franchise. Especially when you see Bwarie alongside the apple-cheeked Preston Truman Boyd, who plays Gaudio, you think at first that you're suddenly watching “Sons of Jersey Boys,” but baby-faced Bwarie is deceptive in the early scenes, because he knows how to show some steel and take command of the show. Bwarie, whose fine performance is enough to merit a return for fans of this show (note that he does not perform matinees), doesn't rely on tricks so much as, simply put, a beautifully clear and pure voice. I was struck by how many people around me were closing their eyes when he sung, even though he is very easy on the eyes. Not all Frankies have provoked that desire to lose oneself in the vocals.
Other notable performances here include John Gardiner as an especially irritating DeVito, which I intend as a compliment, and Michael Lomenda as an especially strange Massi, ditto. The tempestuous scenes between Valli and his first wife, Mary Delgado pop better here than I've ever seen them, thanks to a very shrewd and concise performance from Kara Tremel, a Jersey girl of distinction, even though it's tough for a girl to get a look-in with this gig.
“Jersey Boys” does not show any ravages of time, partly because it makes enough money that no one is tempted to get greedy and cut costs, but mostly because its structure is rock-solid. Its premiere asset is its arrangements, but Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's book is a very clever piece of writing. Hit songs are dangled like carrots for as long as the writers dare; the structure is complex enough not to feel like VH-1 but populist enough that everyone and anyone gets that The Four Seasons matter because this was a group that gave voice to the lives of ordinary Americans, who love, fear, hope and fail.
And whatever else McAnuff may or may not do in his career, no reasonable person could have anything but admiration for his staging here.
He somehow turns a series of similar live performances into a varied series of exciting and involving vignettes, toned to the feeling of the time and place and capturing the way we look up to our flawed celebrities, even as he seems to expose their most intimate secrets. This is a production filled with great American music and one that paints an accessible picture of some of the costs of being a famous singer, out on the road. I suspect you have to do a long tour to really understand boys who came to define themselves by their restless movements, constantly running away and trying to get home.
When: Through June 3
Where: Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe St.
Tickets: $35-$100 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com
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