Entertainment

Oh, What a Night: Tuneful ‘Jersey Boys’ is a mixed bag

Committed performances, a slick scenic design, a crack band and an interesting (if mishandled) storyline are the chief virtues of “Jersey Boys,” the hit musical based on the career of the Four Seasons.

Indeed, there’s much to admire in the road company production now running at the Music Hall. Putting together a show that traces the highs and lows of a real band’s trajectory in rock history can’t be easy, which is perhaps why this production seems a bit labored at times. Occasionally you can almost hear the writers sawing and hammering as they construct transitions from one episode to the next.

As we watch four Italian-American boys rise from obscurity to international fame without ever forsaking their old-neighborhood roots in New Jersey, book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice really give us too much story. They dramatize conflicts in the band, the inevitable tensions between life on the road and maintaining a family back home, the inner workings of the music business in the ’60s and the group’s casual mob connections. These components lend the piece a degree of epic sweep, but the show feels too long.

But I imagine most folks who shell out to see “Jersey Boys” are really coming for the music. And the music is first rate. Actor Brad Weinstock does a credible job of recreating Frankie Valli’s trademark falsetto and his fellow actors and musicians expertly recreate the distinctive sound of the Four Seasons.

After toying with theatergoers with a lot of background story and OK music, towards the end of Act 1 the show kicks open the spigots and hits the audience with the three No. 1 hits that embedded themselves permanently in the brains of anyone with a radio -- "Sherry," "Big Girls Don’t Cry" and "Walk Like a Man." The Friday night audience roared its reaction. This, after all, is what they really came for.

The story is structured as four seasons -- spring, summer, winter and fall -- each narrated by a different member of the group. The first version of the tale comes from Tommy DeVito (Colby Foytik), who founded the group and compounded the band’s financial problems by running up astronomical gambling debts. The story is then taken up by songwriter Bob Gaudio (Jason Kappus), the man who knew how to write hits for Frankie Valli.

After intermission, we get a version of the band’s history from bass player Nick Massi (Brandon Andrus), the taciturn observer whose repeated refrain is "Maybe it’s time I started my own group." And Valli guides us through the last section, in which we learn about his struggles and failures as a family man while touring endlessly to pay off DeVito’s debts.

As written, DeVito is a familiar, tiresome stereotype -- the band’s self-proclaimed "leader," a chronic naysayer possessed by a gnawing fear that he won’t get his fair share of glory. Foytik does what he can with the role but by the time a mob boss (Thomas Fiscella) works out a deal to resolve of DeVito’s debts by exiling him to Vegas, we’re glad to see him go.

But virtually all the characters on stage are stereotypes that never get very far beyond our own notions about working-class Italian-Americans fueled by decades of movies and television. Weinstock takes it to the limit with his clipped, machine-gun diction, which is odd enough to be interesting. Gaudio, who was writing hits when he was 15, seems less like a high-school dropout than a preppie as played by Kappus. The best performance comes from Andrus, who gives Massi an appealing, authoritative quality that makes us want to see more of him.

The cast is filled out by supporting players challenged to bring cardboard characters to life. Natalie Gallo makes a strong impression as Mary Delgado, Frankie’s first wife. And Fiscella gives us an appealing mob boss who seems more like a favorite uncle than a menacing thug.

Klara Zieglerova’s two-level set design gives the show an interesting, industrial look. The costumes by Jess Goldstein are appropriately eye-popping. But most dynamic of all is the masterful lighting design by Howell Binkley.

From where I was sitting – Row G, center section – an unbalanced sound mix occasionally diminished the power of the music. On more than one occasion Weinstock’s lead vocals were virtually drowned out by the band.

Note: If you’re under the impression that this is a family show, think again. Some of our most enduring Anglo-Saxon epithets fly across the stage from beginning to end, and sex on the road is depicted matter-of-factly.

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