Four guys singing under a streetlamp become one of the most iconic pop groups of all time. This is Jersey Boys and it is playing at Great Plains Theatre.
The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons has got it all. Pathos, greed, temptation, petty jealousies, the triumph of the underdog, the terrible price of success, and so much more.
And it’s all true.
It’s a fascinating story especially as it’s told from the point of view of each band member, all of whom have their own slant on the events of their career. It’s also an incredible case study on super success as two handled it gracefully, one walked away from the pressure, and another caved to its excesses. Combine it with the excellent pop tunes and you’ve got the makings for an incredible night of theatre.
Mitchell Aiello understands the many complexities of the script and his direction reflects that understanding. This is a hard show to direct because, in a sense, the show tells 4 separate stories and the director has to make certain each tale gets the proper weight and focus and that becomes trickier when the stories start to intersect. Aiello handles this task admirably as his four leads get ample opportunity to shine. He also has done some terrific staging with some of my favorite moments being when the lights fade out on the Seasons as they fall away from the group. Aiello also has coached his actors to a rock-solid set of performances.
Some wonderful performances in the supporting cast come from Braden Cray Andrew who adds just the right element of peculiarity to Bob Crewe, the eccentric, but talented, producer and lyricist who let astrology guide his business decisions. Madelynn Washburn gives a fierce performance as the tough as nails Mary Delgado, Valli’s first wife and then flips that ferocity on its head with a turn as the airheaded lead singer of the Angels. Washburn’s vocals match her fiery Delgado especially with her lead on “My Boyfriend’s Back”. Annika Andersson finds some deep layers in the small role of Lorraine, a reporter who has a relationship with Valli, but isn’t wiling to share him with his career or family.
Matthew Ruehlman is a true con artist as Tommy DeVito. Ruehlman’s DeVito has a certain likability crucial to a good con man, but he can be a real prick, too, as he writes checks his butt can’t cash and rubs the other Seasons the wrong way. Ruehlman also brings a good sense of vanity to DeVito who thinks he’s the leader of the group (he’s not), but melds it with a tremendous force of will which arguably did hold the group together until they hit it big. Ruehlman also brings some pathos to DeVito when his love of the high life and get rich quick schemes nearly sink the group at its zenith as well as endanger his continued well-being.
I was extremely impressed with the depth Bobby Guenther brought to the role of Nick Massi. At one point, Massi compares himself to Ringo Starr, but George Harrison is the more apt comparison as Massi is the quiet Season. Guenther’s Massi was content to go with the flow until the pressures of success and DeVito’s irresponsible behavior cause him to crack. His breakdown was honest and true and you could feel his regret at the way he let stardom blow his family life to smithereens. Guenther also has a big, beautiful bass voice who served as the foundation of the Seasons’ harmonies.
I really enjoyed Clayton Sallee’s take on Bob Gaudio. Sallee plays the legendary songwriter with an ironclad sense of confidence with just the slightest sprinkling of ego. Gaudio’s music was a big part of the equation in the success of the Four Seasons, but he never lords it over the others even though he argues, and pretty strongly, that “they couldn’t have done it without him”. Sallee well communicates Gaudio’s knowledge of the music business with his negotiations with DeVito and his business dealings with Valli. Sallee also an angelic tenor and knocks it out of the park with “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”.
This being my second go-around reviewing this musical, I’m starting to come to the conclusion that the role of Frankie Valli has to be one of the most difficult to cast in theatre as talent isn’t enough. You also need an actor of a certain physicality who can emulate Valli’s singular vibrato falsetto and tenor. Luckily, this show has the talents of Bear Manescalchi who fits the role to a T.
Manescalchi lays out a beautiful arc for Valli starting with him as a shy, hesitant teenager smoothing out the rough edges on his singing and evolving him into the strong, confident leader of the Seasons and mimics that falsetto and tenor to perfection from “Sherry” to “Rag Doll” to “Dawn” and all the rest. Manescalchi brings some raw emotional power to the role and knows how to act through a song with renditions of “My Eyes Adored You” and “Fallen Angel” that made me want to burst into tears. Manescalchi can act up a storm away from a song with his smoldering fury and frustration with DeVito and his personal collapse upon learning of the death of his youngest daughter being particular treats.
Mitchell Aiello’s choreography is right on the mark. This show isn’t known for big, flashy numbers though he gets some boppin’ in with “Short Shorts” and the curtain call reprise of “December, 1963”. Rather it just needs well-coordinated, simple moves as the singers perform and he does that in spades. Aiello has also designed a simple set of risers and crisscrossed slats to create the world of this show. Kent Buess’ lights add fantastic detail and are highly emotional with a tragic blue for sadder moments, red for angrier moments, and a sunset purple for passionate moments. He also has a good use for shadow as he brings the lights down on each Season as he leaves the group and also leaves the replacements (at least initially) in the shadows to emphasize the star that is Frankie Valli. Becky Dibben’s costumes fill the bill with the trademark colorful suits of the Seasons as well as the period correct clothing of the cast as the show evolves from the 60s to 2000s. Donna Rendely Peeler’s musical direction is spectacular. The harmonies are gorgeous, the solos are heavenly, and never is a sour note sung.
The performers definitely needed to tighten the cue pickups both internally and in dialogue to help boost the energy and some moments of violence and horseplay need some smoothing out to be a bit more realistic. I’d also like to see this show again with a more demonstrative crowd as the quiet crowd of this performance wasn’t giving the cast enough energy to feed upon and that high octane flow between cast and audience is essential for a production such as this one.
That being said, this show is still another feather in the cap of Great Plains Theatre and you should get a ticket to see it. And don’t be shy. Be big. Be boisterous. Let it all hang loose because this cast is going to give you a show to remember.
Jersey Boys plays at Great Plains Theatre through July 31. Showtimes are 2pm on Wed, Sat, and Sun and 7:30pm Thurs-Sat. Tickets cost $40 and can be purchased at the Box Office, visiting www.greatplainstheatre.com, or calling 785-263-4574. Parental discretion is advised due to some strong language. Great Plains Theatre is located at 215 N Campbell St in Abilene, KS.