JERSEY BOYS AT BUSHNELL…..OH, WHAT A NIGHT!

By Tony Schillaci and Don Church

Four guys from “the neighborhood” blew the art-deco roof off the Bushnell in the Tony Award-winning musical Jersey Boys. It runs through February 22, 2009

With typical Hartford-audience enthusiasm, the standing ovations, roars of approval, hoots and shouts touched the performers onstage in an emotional outpouring for one of the best feel-good shows we have ever seen.

The show’s tag line reads: “Have we got a story for you.” It tells of how a group of blue-collar boys from the wrong side of the tracks (Frankie Valli lived in a housing project) became one of the biggest pop music sensations of all time.

This cast is phenomenal. The ensemble piece breathes life into each of the group members and to those who contributed to their success.

Brash, handsome and ballsy Matt Bailey does his stuff as Tommy DeVito, the bad boy of the foursome. Joseph Leo Bwarie is a sensational Frankie Valli. Some of the dialogue refers to Frankie having “the voice of an angel.” Joseph Leo certainly lives up to that description. Engaging Josh Franklin makes us believe that he is really the songwriter Bob Gaudio, and Steve Gouveia (one of the original Broadway cast members) allows the other three to take stage center as the low-key bass Nick Massi.

Showing us the essence of gay lyricist/producer Bob Crewe, Jonathan Hadley flirts with “the top” without going over it. The audience ‘gets’ his homosexuality, but, as the boys observe, “this was the 60’s, when even Liberace was thought of as just being theatrical.” In a few scenes Jonathan gives us just a hint of Paul Lynde and the audience embraces him for his funny yet thoughtful performance. Adding to the gay vibe of the show was actor Joseph Siravo’s turn as a priest whose subtle movements and sensitivity turned our gaydar on, and in a recording booth moment, Bob Crewe’s engineer cozies up to the record producer.

The cast is made up of some of the most talented performers in any show. Each actor, with the exception of the principals, plays many parts – and each actor creates an entirely believable character when he or she dons a new wig, hat, glasses, or a fresh costume.

Getting back to Mr. Siravo, (who played Johnny-Boy Soprano on The Sopranos), he is equally at home as the mobster Gyp DeCarlo as he is as the priest and as a bowling-alley owner. Talk about versatility!

Sets by Klara Zieglerova, costumes by Jess Goldstein, and lighting by Howell Brinkley should be considered three more of the show’s characters. The brilliantly sparse set allows the large cast of actors, singers and musicians to move about easily and the audience’s collective imagination turns circular staircases and metal ramps into a balcony in the projects, a nightclub, a bowling alley, a recording studio or a jailhouse.

The costumes emphasize the suit-and-tie conservatism of the singing groups of the sixties, and then dazzle and sparkle as the Four Seasons become more and more famous, and return to stylish, well-dressed calmness in the finale.

The lighting enhances the quicker-than-lightning scene changes, so that the action is not slowed or stopped for a moment. All of the cast members double as stagehands, and their now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t movements with props, furniture and scenic illusions are assisted by having unobtrusive lighting cues focus on other parts of the stage.

Make no mistake; this show is all about the music. The thirty-four songs range from “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” to “Short Shorts” and “Earth Angel”, and then to the hits “Sherry”, “Walk Like A Man”, “Dawn”, “December 1963”, and “Rag Doll”. A huge surprise is in store when, in the second act, a song perceived as offbeat (and that disc jockeys resisted playing on the air) became one of Frankie Valli’s biggest hits. The audience recognition response is immediate and exuberant.

Helping the music and vocal magic is the sound design by Steve Canyon Kennedy. In some previous shows at the Bushnell, sound designers have had a tendency to have the band or orchestra drown out the singing and dialogue. In Jersey Boys the sound is beautifully balanced. Every word sung is caressed and enhanced by the instruments in a love-love relationship. The beautiful voices of Matt, Joseph Leo, Josh and Steve are never drowned out, but are allowed to soar. The Four Season’s songs become the focus of the enjoyment of the performance.

This show is what Broadway is supposed to be all about. It touches all the right buttons. The book by Academy Award-winner (for Annie Hall) Marshall Brick man and Rick Elise is funny, rapid-fire, and the characters talk like real people – vulgar, profane and without filters. Some of the one-liners are side-splittingly hilarious, grow out of the moment, and are in character.

There is tragedy and remorse, loneliness and despair, but these low-points are handled with such aplomb that the show is not slowed by their messages.

Having seen hundreds of plays and musicals over the past decades, some hit our emotional chords, some don’t. Some lift us out of our seats, some make us squirm. Jersey Boys is one of those hoped-for experiences in the musical theater that uplifts, gives pleasure, is real, truly, truly entertaining; and sets a new benchmark for contemporary American musicals.

On our way out of the sold-out performance, a rough character was behind us talking to his group of friends. We overheard him say “I hate the thee-ate-er. I never go. She dragged me here kickin’ and screamin’. I told her if I don’t like this thing I’m gonna walk out right in the middle. But let me tell you guys, this is some f----in’ show. All I can say is “THAT’S Entertainment”! We can’t agree more…. This is some f----in’ show!

Jersey Boys through February 22, 2009. The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. www.bushnell.org. Toll-free 888-824-2874

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©2009. Tony Schillaci and Don Church. Critics On The Aisle. All rights reserved.

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