While it seems as if many jukebox musicals have the average lifespan of bowhead whales (around 200 years), they actually may live forever. Like Shakespeare, Mozart, and Donald Trump, there are entities that seem indestructible due to their timeless language, their enduring musicality, or their craven deal with the devil (“You mean I can eat fast food every day, abuse all manner of people for multiple reasons, and never die? Here, take my soul.”).
Easily fitting into that category of possible immortality is Jersey Boys, which is back in town with a touring company at Playhouse Square, displaying the full retinue of songs that makes many people stomp and shout—almost involuntarily. From the first downbeat of this show, in which a French rap singer does a contemporized version of “Oh, What a Night!”, the audience is snared not just by the music but by the anticipation of the music. The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice teasingly rolls out the story of how three petty hoodlums and a composer/nerd from the suburbs made pop history.
We see how the young Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Frankie Valli (nee Castelluccio) play tag-team as they go in and out of various correctional facilities in New jersey—in between two-bit musical gigs. But things get serious when the talented pop songwriter Bob Gaudio, who’s on tour with his hit single “Who Wears Short-Shorts?,” meets the b&e gang that couldn’t shoot straight. But boy, can they sing.
With Gaudio as their musical lodestar and Bob Crewe as their producer, the Boys find their group name when they adopt the name of a bowling alley where they were turned down for a performing slot in the cocktail lounge. And once they hit big with “Sherry,” the Four Seasons become one of the top groups in the world, plying their infectious song hooks, cleverly doubling Frankie’s hypnotic falsetto (a genius move by Crewe), and still dabbling in illegal activities just for grins.
This production does a great job of capturing the group dynamics of guys from different sides of the tracks coming together, even as they introduce the naive Gaudio to the (albeit brief) pleasures of sexual intercourse with a helpful hooker.
As Frankie, Jon Hacker has a solid falsetto with a slightly different tonal quality than the original, but he handles his acting chores a bit too woodenly. You never get the sense that this Frankie has the rough edges that would ultimately qualify the actual guy to play the made-man role of Rusty Millio in The Sopranos.
Corey Greenan smoothly exudes that street-tough vibe as Tommy DeVito, and he nails his narration of the Four Seasons history during the first act. In the role of Nick Massi, Michael Milton deploys a hilarious deadpan delivery for his curt lines, but his bass vocals don’t have the heft required to counterpoint Hacker’s high notes. And Eric Chambliss delivers a charming if slightly flat performance as Bob Gaudio.
Other productions of Jersey Boys may be more humorous, poignant, or musically exact than this one, but there’s no denying the visceral pull of the music. That’s why the real Frankie Valli is still performing with three other new guys as The Four Seasons, even to this day. And thus it may always be. Forever and amen.
Through January 26 at the Connor Palace, Playhouse Square, 1516 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org
Christine Howey, a former stage actor and director, is currently executive director of Literary Cleveland.