June 14, 2006

One Critic’s Thoughts on Jersey Boys

June 14th, 2006

Philadelphia Inquirer’s Howard Shapiro has some thoughts on Jersey Boys taking home the top prize at the Tonys. Shapiro says it’s nostalgic. It’s ebullient. It’s the American dream, with twists. It makes you happy. And, he admits, it was a surprise to him when Jersey Boys won the Tony for best musical.

When the envelope opened to reveal Jersey Boys as the winner, it suddenly dawned on me why a majority of the producers, theater professionals and critics who are the 754 Tony voters made the choice. (For the record, Shapiro is a voter, and also a fan of Jersey Boys; his best-musical ballot went to Chaperone for its inventiveness.) The show defines its genre.

It’s the ups-and-downs story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and it also won a best-musical-actor award for John Lloyd Young, the darkly handsome, dynamic actor who plays and sings Valli, plus a featured-actor award for Christian Hoff, portraying bandmate Tommy DeVito.

But Jersey Boys is the jukebox musical at its purest. There’s no fiction created to stick to its songs, no Vegas-type exploitation of air and fire and ice to overwhelm the melodies. What you get is what the genre implies – the story behind the songs and the singers who made them famous, plus the songs themselves, performed by a superb cast that sings and dances its collective heart out.

In Jersey Boys, the jukebox is the musical. Jersey Boys may have defined the genre so well, it could be the last word in jukebox musicals. But then, you know about predictions.

Jersey Boys, of course, brings to the theater many Americans who grew up with the Four Seasons’ songs in the ’60s, and one of the best things about the show is the opportunity it affords to really listen to the words. After years away from them, Shapiro realized how sweet and wholehearted those lyrics, mostly written by Bob Gaudio, can be.

When you’re older, and you hear John Lloyd Young sing “My Eyes Adored You,” it’s a striking confession. The group sings “Dawn (Go Away)” and you understand its raw meaning anew. His personal favorite: “Rag Doll.” When Shapiro heard the lyric “I’d change her sad rags into glad rags, if I could,” he wished he had said it to his kids whenever they were cursed with the sort of childhood hurt that a parent can do nothing about. Shapiro left the theater humming it over and over, and weeks later, he still does.

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