There are two ways to enjoy the national touring company production of "Jersey Boys" that has settled into the Marcus Center for four weeks.
Those of us who got our driver's license, shared our first kiss or wore a cap and gown in the 1960s and '70s can sit back and let the classic songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons wash over us. It's like stretching out on a beach after a long winter. The world is right for two and a half hours while we luxuriate in "Sherry," "Rag Doll," "Walk Like a Man" and so many more.
But "Jersey Boys" is more than a concert by an exceptional tribute band. It is also an extremely shrewd piece of theater that hooks us with clever theatricality.
"Jersey Boys" is what is known as a jukebox musical. Rather than build a show around an original score, this genre, which has been with us since the late '90s, exploits songbooks of established hits.
"Mamma Mia," constructed on ABBA tunes, has been the most spectacularly successful, and other jukebox shows have ranged from respectable hits to embarrassing flops. "Jersey Boys" is second only to "Mamma" in popularity, and the shows are equal in the nostalgic nirvana they induce in Baby Boomers.
The musicals are different in one crucial detail. "Mamma Mia" has a fictional plot shaped around ABBA's greatest hits.
"Jersey Boys" tells a real story few of us knew – the Four Seasons' petty criminal backgrounds in New Jersey neighborhoods that would decades later be Tony Soprano territory. The show also reveals the jealousies, tensions and conflict that infected the group and caused personnel turnover.
It's unflattering inside stuff that is often in stark contrast with the innocent songs the band recorded. Those songs and the Seasons' stories are two of the three ingredients that make "Jersey Boys" such fun.
The creative team of book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and director Des McAnuff is the third key to the show's success. Brickman has a long writing career that includes collaborating with Woody Allen on the screenplays of "Manhattan" and "Annie Hall."
McAnuff is the artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada. The talent and experience levels of the two men give this show about rough-edged rock 'n' rollers a smart theatrical gloss.
The script is sharp, tart and funny. The staging is uptempo with a smooth cinematic glide.
Chronological histories on stage run the danger of falling into a tedious rhythm. "Jersey Boys" avoids that by employing a number of devices.
Exposition is achieved by the four principal characters sharing narration. That gives each personality the opportunity to be heard, and it varies the show's texture.
Most of the time the "Jersey Boys" audience serves as a Four Seasons concert audience, but director McAnuff also changes things up by turning the band around and giving us a from-the-back-of-the-stage look at the group performing. All of this adds up to highly effective stagecraft.
The Four Seasons distinctive sound is captured by the touring company cast. In addition to duplicating Valli's falsetto, Joseph Leo Bwarie imbues the star with a vulnerability that makes him quite human. We should all be portrayed so sympathetically on stage.
Matt Bailey's Tommy DeVito, the small time hood, con man and loser who was the band's lead guitarist, is seriously slick and loquacious. Quinn VanAntwerp embodies the astute and more preppy Bob Gaudio, the song writing genius who was not from the mean streets of Jersey.
Often with a twinkle in his eye, Steve Gouveia conveys the distracted demeanor that drove Nick Massi to walk away from the band when it was still riding high. Among the smaller roles, Courter Simmons' on-the-mark portrayal of a young Joe Pesci and Kara Tremel's edgy portrait of Valli's wife are particularly noteworthy.
It's too bad that Jonathan Hadley is channeling Paul Lynde and overplaying lyricist and record producer Bob Crewe's gayness. Cheap laughs are not needed in this show.
"The Drowsy Chaperone" in Elm Grove
The abundance of professional stage productions in Wisconsin precludes me from writing about community theater, but I must make an exception for the Sunset Playhouse's current staging of "The Drowsy Chaperone." It's darn near perfect and more charming than a roomful of puppies. Don't miss it!
Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.
During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.
Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.