‘Jersey Boys’ fails to recapture stage show’s magic

Playing the Four Seasons in a scene from Jersey Boys are (from left): John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Erich Bergen (Bob Guadio), Vincent Piazza (Tommy DeVito) and Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi) (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
Playing the Four Seasons in a scene from Jersey Boys are (from left): John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Erich Bergen (Bob Guadio), Vincent Piazza (Tommy DeVito) and Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi) (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

By Richard Ades

Chicago was a great movie. So were Cabaret, West Side Story and The Sound of Music.

But for every stage musical that made a successful transition to the multiplex, you can probably think of four or five that didn’t. So it’s not really surprising that the movie version of Jersey Boys isn’t half as much fun as its live predecessor.

Director Clint Eastwood made some good choices and some bad choices when he went about adapting Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s biographical tribute to the Four Seasons. One of the good choices was casting people who’d already proved themselves in the stage version, rather than following the usual practice of hiring film stars. That guaranteed that the actors playing the 1960s rock group could actually sing (unlike, say, Russell Crowe in the big-screen version of Les Miz).

One of Eastwood’s questionable choices was hiring Brickman and Elice to adapt their own hit musical. You’d think that would be a plus, as it would encourage the movie to stay true to the original, but staying true to the original isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Not to belabor the obvious, but a movie and a stage musical are two entirely different animals. On the stage, we can put up with dramatic developments being delivered in a kind of shorthand, as their main purpose is to propel us toward the next tune. In a movie, we generally need more realism.

We don’t get that in Eastwood’s Jersey Boys. Not only do many of the characters come off as Italian-American stereotypes, but the dramatic developments often hit us without warning, depriving them of their potential power. That’s especially true of lead singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), who’s faced with one emotional setback after another involving the women in his life—none of whom we’ve really gotten to know.

Compounding the problem, Young gives a rather unemotional performance in the role he originated on Broadway, though he makes up for it every time he launches into his dead-on impersonation of Valli’s falsetto warbling.

The actors playing the other members of the group—Vincent Piazza as unscrupulous control freak Tommy DiVito, Erich Bergen as songwriter Bob Guadio and Michael Lomenda as bass-voiced Nick Massi—are all fine. Even so, the movie seldom gives us a feel for what drives them other than their egos. And economic necessity: In an early voice-over, Tommy says the only ways to escape from their blue-collar New Jersey neighborhood are the Army, the mob and fame.

Speaking of the mob, it’s well represented by Christopher Walken as “Gyp” DeCarlo, a paternal gangster with a soft spot for the group’s music.

The film does manage to open the story up a bit in the first act, as when Frankie is roped into an attempt to rob a jewelry store. The heist goes humorously wrong when the would-be crooks attempt to load a huge safe into the trunk of an old Studebaker, with disastrous results.

Mostly, though, Eastwood sticks to the stage musical’s arc, which allows the members of the group to take turns narrating the Four Seasons’ rise from obscurity to Top 40 success, even as the quartet is wracked by jealousies and financial problems.

Like the original, the movie is at its best when it re-creates the band’s big hits, like Sherry, Walk Like a Man and, best of all, the Valli solo Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough moments when the musicians are allowed to set aside their problems and just rock out.

As if to make up for this dearth, the closing credits are projected over a Bollywood-style song-and-dance number involving the whole cast, belatedly capturing the kind of energy that made the stage production a Broadway hit.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Tale of New Jersey songsters improves with age

Brandon Andrus, Nick Cosgrove, Jason Kappus and Nicolas Dromard (from left) play the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys (photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Brandon Andrus, Nick Cosgrove, Jason Kappus and Nicolas Dromard (from left) play the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

Why is Jersey Boys so much more fun the second time around?

Part of it may be due to lowered expectations. Prior to the touring show’s Columbus debut in 2011, the press attended a preview during which we were told to expect a spectacle that would put every other musical to shame. We also were informed that male viewers, in particular, would be reduced to manly tears by this trip down the Four Seasons’ Memory Lane.

Well, it didn’t happen. Not to me, at least. The show’s historically correct harmonizing was great, but the dramatic portions left my eyes dry.

Fast forward to earlier this week, when the latest version of the touring show returned to the Ohio Theatre. I went, expecting little, and got a lot. In fact, I had a ball.

But the difference can’t be attributed entirely to my new lack of optimism. I think the production is noticeably better this time around.

That’s particularly true in regards to the key role of lead singer Frankie Valli. Two years ago, the featured actor hit the falsetto notes with aplomb, but he couldn’t carry off some of the tale’s most touching moments. Now, though, Nick Cosgrove does it all without a hitch—singing, acting and even a few athletic dance moves.

Actors playing the rest of the New Jersey-bred quartet are equally fine: Nicolas Dromard as the out-for-himself Tommy DeVito, Jason Kappus as songwriter Bob Gaudio and a comically laconic Brandon Andrus as Nick Massi.

With a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, this 2006 Tony Award winner relates the history of the Four Seasons by allowing each member of the 1960s rock group to tell his side of the tale in turn. It’s a clever tack and probably a necessary one, given that three of the four original members are still alive and don’t necessarily agree on the details.

A bevy of talented supporting cast members play the many people who wander in and out of the musicians’ lives. Key actors include Barry Anderson as record producer Bob Crewe, Marlana Dunn as Mary Delgado and Thomas Fiscella as sentimental gangster Gyp DeCarlo.

Under Des McAnuff’s direction, the cast and crew work as a unit while the action flows fluidly from one scene to the next, sometimes even in the midst of song. Meanwhile, Klara Zieglerova’s set design and Howell Binkley’s lighting design fill the stage with images that are subtly handsome and perfectly complementary. As a piece of stagecraft, Jersey Boys is a wonder.

But the show’s real highlight is the music—the just-right re-creations of hits such as Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. And that’s due not only to the actors’ vocal prowess but to conductor Ben Hartman and his onstage band. Special kudos to Mark Papazian, without whose emphatic drumming the night would be far less joyful.

Were my eyes still dry when I left the show this time around? Yes, but I didn’t care. The rest of my face was smiling.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Jersey Boys through Sept. 29 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $28-$128. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.