It’s a season of manly musicals, from ‘Jersey Boys’ to ‘Oklahoma!’
Jersey Boys is something of a musical miracle: A jukebox show about a long-since-relevant pop band (you can’t call what the Four Seasons did rock — they were more along the lines of sophisticated doo-wop) with a dreadfully banal title that manages to defy all expectations on its way to creating a genuinely engaging and smart night of theater.
It has become easy to disparage the trend of jukebox musicals; they have become all-too prevalent on Broadway, basically excuses for stringing together proven hits from specific bands, composers or genres and call that a play. In the last decade or so, we’ve had ABBA (Mamma Mia!), Johnny Cash (Ring of Fire and Million Dollar Quartet), Green Day (American Idiot), The Gershwins (Nice Work If You Can Get It), Billy Joel (Movin’ Out), Peter Allen (The Boy from Oz), ‘80s hair bands and bad pop (Rock of Ages, Footloose, Xanadu, Urban Cowboy, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert) and even the hit Irish indie film Once. While some are entertaining, even good, they often follow a predictable format, either shoehorning songs into a flimsy plot to maximize hummability or turning the script into a mere framework around which a concert is performed.
That’s not the case with Jersey Boys. In fact, its resistance to it parading out Four Seasons songs from the first minute to the last is one of the savviest decisions made by director Des McAnuff: You’re almost an hour into Act 1 before the first song the ‘60s group was known for, “Sherry,” is actually sung onstage; the result is you really want to hear them hits. And then the hits start rolling. And rolling.
It’s an avalanche, really.
The Four Seasons was neither jazz nor rock, British invasion nor disco, but squeezed out an impressive 14 Top Ten hits over more than a decade in an era when musical tastes were changing quickly. Jersey Boys glosses over the chronology (it starts in the late 1940s, though you’d never know it) and the context of their achievements (they were chart contemporaries of both Ella Fitzgerald and The Captain & Tennille), but by telling the story from the perspectives of each of the original members — Tommy DeVito (Colby Foytik), Bob Gaudio (Jason Kappus), Nick Massi (Brandon Andrus) and Frankie Valli (Brad Weinstock) — it explains away the inconsistencies. It’s a memory play, with catchy tunes filling in the gaps.
It also doesn’t have to bend over backward to work the songs in, since The Four Seasons has three No. 1 hits in rapid succession, and the others tended to bespeak changes in the group and society. And the backstory of the group real is a portrait of Jersey goombahs done good, told with a fluid cinematic style — it’s what a musical by Martin Scorsese would probably look like.
And some sexy goombahs they are. The cast of Jersey Boys is always prettier than the actual mooks who sang the original songs. They are a charming quartet (OK, Foytik, as the bully DeVito, the Momma Rose of this band of gypsies, is convincing if not appealing): Kappus is goofy-lovable, Andrus a hulking honey and Weinstock a tiny firecracker. He doesn’t sound all that much like Valli — he’s far too nasal, not genuinely falsetto — but his acting chops are solid. So are those of Barry Anderson as Bob Crewe, the group’s flamboyant producer and lyricist (the show downplays Crewe’s essential role in creating their sound).
The story of these friends from Belleville, N.J. — touched by the mob, beset with ups-and-downs, makers of undeniably likable songs — actually is engaging in ways you don’t fully expect. It has a hook, and stands up. What else do you want from a jukebox?
The songs the Four Seasons produced are nothing compared to the output of Rodgers & Hammerstein. In fact, Oklahoma!, at the Lyric Stage through Sunday, has more classics than the dustiest shelf at the library: “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” “Surrey with the Fringe on Top,” “Many a New Day,” “Kansas City,” “Poor Jud is Daid,” “People Will Say.” Careers have been based on less … and that’s just the first act.
For a few years now, Lyric has done the impossible, out-Broadwaying Broadway. They’ve landed original orchestrations, costumes, the cooperation of revered theater teams and something you never see: A 33-piece orchestra that knows a classic score can soar. These are big, expensive shows, and almost all — Carousel, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, Gypsy — have been phenomenal. Oklahoma! is no exception.
The plot and staging are actually quite simple: Before the Sooner State was even a state, it was a frontier where ranchers and farmers led hearty lives of surprising acceptance; a Persian peddler raises no eyebrows, nor a farmhand who, today, would probably be diagnosed with Asperger’s. And a dumb but dreamy cowboy (Bryant Martin) could shyly woo a landed young lady (Savannah Frazier) by promising her a nice ride to the box social … and might even prove his devotion by selling his horse. Their romance — in a story unexpectedly tinged with darkness and violence — is straightforward and beautiful. And the music matches it.
This show — nearly 70 years old — was R&H’s first collaboration, and the score is as breathtaking and fresh as it ever has been. There’s a timeless elegance to singing about your emotions and here, it never feels forced, even with clever rhyme schemes and comic lyrics. It’s not corny but merely sincere.
Martin and Frazier, newcomers to me, are a perfect pairing: Young, attractive and blessed with clarion voices. They project bigger-than-life characters without overplaying.
Even they are out-acted by Kyle Cotton’s tic-filled sociopath Jud Fry. His performance is modern yet wholly believable as the porn-obsessed weirdo who seems more stalker than friend. It’s a testament to the writing that it feels as relevant today both as a story and as a musical as it did in the ‘40s.
The supporting players score as well, from the kicky dance numbers to the comic mastery by Erica Harte’s Ado Annie and Sean McGee’s Will Parker.
Director Cheryl Denson, who has helmed many of the Lyric revivals, knows how to do “big” right. The sets are magnificent and even at more than three hours, the pacing brisk. More than 30 actors are onstage at times, and remarkably all ooze authenticity — the men seem like cowboys, not chorusboys. It’s as butch as … well, as Jersey Boys. And the only falsetto parts are sung by girls.
And the best thing about this Oklahoma!? You don’t need to drive past the Red River to visit.
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 22, 2012.