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Oh, What A Night With 'Jersey Boys' At The Pantages

Maureen Lee Lenker |
October 9, 2014 | 9:38 a.m. PDT

Contributor

Jason Kappus, Nicolas Dromard, Hayden Milanes and Adam Zelasko perform "Sherry." Photo by Joan Marcus
Jason Kappus, Nicolas Dromard, Hayden Milanes and Adam Zelasko perform "Sherry." Photo by Joan Marcus
The unmistakable opening beats of “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” begin to echo through the theater and before a single cast member has appeared on stage, the audience is tapping their toes and excitedly bobbing their heads along to the music. This is the opening night of “Jersey Boys” at the Hollywood Pantages, and the energy in the theater is at a fever pitch.

Since its debut on Broadway in 2005, “Jersey Boys” has been an enormously successful crowd-pleaser, winning the 2006 Tony and 2009 Olivier Awards for Best Musical. With long-running productions ongoing in New York, London, and Las Vegas, as well as international and national tours, “Jersey Boys” has entertained audiences on a global stage for nearly 10 years. This past summer it was adapted into a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Now, the production returns to Los Angeles with a limited engagement at the Pantages Theater.

The show follows the story of the original Four Seasons — Frankie Valli (Hayden Milanes), Bob Gaudio (Jason Kappus), Tommy DeVito (Nicolas Drommard), and Nick Massi (Adam Zelasko). Divided into four segments, each member of the group takes a turn as narrator. The musical chronicles the meteoric rise of four blue-collar boys from the New Jersey backstreets and their subsequent fall. Using the hit songs of the group, as well as other popular music from the late 1950s and 1960s, the production tells the story of these Jersey Boys against the backdrop of a parade of pop music hits.

Full disclosure— I might call myself a bit of a “Jersey Boys” fan girl. This production marked the fourth time I have seen the show: once in 2007 when the first national tour came to Los Angeles, once in London, the film this summer, and this most recent touring production. As Frankie Valli remarks at the play’s close, it was the first time he heard and made that sound with his fellow group members that he will always remember most fondly. The same rule applies to the production itself— while I never fail to leave this show in a buoyant mood, nothing can quite compare to the first touring production I saw in 2007. That cast had a unique energy and vibrancy that had you itching to get out of your seat and dance throughout. You felt like you were watching history come alive.

SEE ALSO: Theater Review: 'Ghost: The Musical' At The Pantages

The 2014 Clint Eastwood helmed film had the advantage of a nationwide casting search— with the talent of Hollywood and years of “Jersey Boys” cast members to choose from, Eastwood assembled his cast after attending numerous productions and selecting those he thought were best in each role. Yet despite this, the film is more firmly biopic than it is jukebox musical. It takes forty-five minutes to get to the first full-length onscreen musical number and the only true production number comes in the credits as the cast come out for a cinematic version of a curtain call.

In contrast, the stage version has nearly nonstop musical numbers, with The Four Seasons' music used for dramatic effect to further the story. The story is in their songs, rather than the songs merely being a part of their story. It is this musical landscape, combined with high-energy orchestrations and technical showmanship, that makes the show truly special. Pair this with a cast that somehow manages to recreate the iconic sounds of Frankie Valli’s falsetto and the unique harmonic blend of the original Four Seasons, and it’s easy to see why it has had such a successful run.

Unfortunately, this production isn’t quite up to snuff on that front. Though the set and staging remain largely the same, the production has been slightly stripped down. One of the most exciting parts of the original show is when The Four Seasons are launched out of the floor in flashy blazers straight into a musical number— it’s unexpected, fun, and injects the number with a pop of energy from the start. Instead, in this production, The Four Seasons merely stroll out to their microphones from the wings as they slip into new jackets... lackluster in comparison.

Furthermore, sound issues make the proceedings low energy in comparison to the usual jolt the show infuses. The band lacks oomph and the microphones were either malfunctioning or not quite loud enough to fill the large house of the Pantages. With musical numbers driving the story and dialogue only lightly interspersed throughout, the show’s success depends on an enveloping sonic experience. Due to these sound woes, the production feels languid next to the usual energy that explodes off the stage.

Adam Zelasko, Hayden Milanes, Jason Kappus and Nicolas Dromard perform "Big Girls Don't Cry." Photo by Joan Marcus.
Adam Zelasko, Hayden Milanes, Jason Kappus and Nicolas Dromard perform "Big Girls Don't Cry." Photo by Joan Marcus.
The cast, particularly the four leads, is strong, but the sound problems diminish their effectiveness. Typically, hearing those harmonies and vocal blends live is like capturing lightning in a bottle — you wonder how they do it night after night. Yet, because the band and microphones do not propel their voices the way they should, their harmonies and vocal abilities seem muted. It’s a shame because in quieter moments, it’s abundantly clear that each of the cast members has the vocal chops to accomplish what the production requires. They are simply hindered by technical failings.

Milanes as Valli and Kappus as Gaudio especially stand-out. Milanes wows on his big solo numbers, especially “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” After John Lloyd Young won the Tony for portraying Valli in the original 2005 production, many wondered how many more voices that could rival Valli’s unique sound producers might find. Yet somehow they keep striking gold. Milanes is not only note perfect, but he brings a fun boyish swagger to Valli as we watch him grow from sixteen-year-old prodigy to seasoned performer and loyal business partner. He is also the best dancer I’ve ever seen in the role of Valli. One of the delights of “Jersey Boys” is watching the four leads mimic the iconic dance style of the original Four Seasons as they perform, but Milanes takes it to a new level. During “Beggin,” he drops into two sets of splits and does a flashy move where he spins the microphone stand under and around his leg. With these moves, he highlights the reason for Valli’s continued success as a performer; Valli (and Milanes as Valli) doesn’t just sing, he’s a superior showman from top to bottom.

SEE ALSO: Theater Review: 'Once' At The Pantages

Kappus turns in a winning performance as Bob Gaudio, the songwriter and most level-headed member of the quartet. Gaudio is easily the most likable character in the play, and understandably so, as it was the real Bob Gaudio who first approached producers about using the music of The Four Seasons in a Broadway musical. He’s charming and maintains a winning boyish innocence, while also carving out a career with longevity through his business sense and song-writing acumen. Kappus nails this dichotomy. He bears a striking resemblance, in both appearance and physicality, to Erich Bergen who portrayed Gaudio in both the first national tour and the film. Bergen is scintillating to watch— he possesses a voice and an energy that make it difficult to focus on others when he’s on stage or screen. Gaudio himself cited Bergen as the actor who portrayed him most closely to himself and what he was really like back in 1963. Given that, Kappus’ similarities to Bergen make him naturally successful in the role.

This particular performance featured an extra surprise— Frankie Valli himself was in the audience, and he came out onstage to thunderous applause during the curtain call. Riding the emotional high of the show’s closing number “Who Loves You?,” it was challenging not to feel overwhelmed by his presence after having just borne witness to his story. Seeing the original Jersey Boy on stage, I couldn’t help it — this big girl did cry.

Overall, the production is still entertaining. Led by a strong Valli and Gaudio, with most of director Des McAnuff’s original staging and Michael Clark’s fantastic projection design, the show maintains enough of its original vigor to enchant audiences. If you’ve never seen “Jersey Boys” live on stage before, 'walk like a man' down to the Pantages and enjoy a rollicking good night at the theater. Only devotees of the show might be mildly disappointed. Even then, despite some minor technical quibbles, you’ll be hard pressed to find another show in town that leaves you in such a joyous mood as you drive home with a spring in your step and song in your heart.

Jersey Boys is playing now through October 19th at the Pantages Theater (6233 Hollywood Boulevard, Los Angeles). Tickets range from $25-$102. For more information, visit HollywoodPantages.com

Contact Contributor Maureen Lee Lenker here or follow her on Twitter @maureenlee89

For more Theater & Dance coverage click here.



 

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