No theatrical genre has irritated me more than so-called jukebox musicals. Typically thin on plot and clumsy with characterization, shows like “Honky-Tonk Angels,” “Closer Than Ever” or any of the Wondrettes series are engineered to garner all of the emotion out of a slew of familiar songs while doing none of the narrative effort. As far I am concerned, they are the reality TV shows of the stage.
But then I saw “Jersey Boys,” the latest Broadway in Richmond production now running at the Landmark. Offering slices of nearly 35 songs, this show can certainly fill a jukebox but it doesn't do so at the detriment of a rousing good tale. The show plots the rise of 1960s hit-makers The Four Seasons, who charted dozens of top singles on the strength of Frankie Valli's impossible falsetto. The story unfolds "Rashomon"-style with the four principles taking turns giving their own perspective on the crazy ways that things went right and the unexpected ways that things went wrong. Pulsing with New Jersey personality (and profanity), slick without ever being shallow, this classic rags-to-riches journey never hits a sour note.
The typical jukebox musical dwells on exposition that ultimately doesn’t go anywhere and showcases big musical numbers that go on too long. "Boys" blasts through exposition almost breathlessly and never gives you 30 seconds of a song when 15 will do. The action bubbles along for more than 45 minutes before the Four Season's first big hit, "Sherry," gets a full airing out and, by then, you're so hungry for a whole song that hearing it all is that much sweeter. Even if you aren't a Four Seasons fan, the infectiousness of tunes like "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)" and "Walk Like a Man" will keep you humming long after the curtain falls.
Key to the show's success is the talent and charm of the lead boys. Though Valli was the Four Season's presumed front man, in "Boys" he emerges as a complex figure, seemingly egoless, fiercely loyal to the group and often torn between his personal and professional life. Besides nailing that killer vocal range, Hayden Milanes gives Valli a boyish charm that persists even as the character faces the inevitable complications of fame. Providing the rampant egotism in the story is Tommy DeVito, portrayed by Nicolas Dromard. He's the driving force behind the group's formation but his shady dealings nearly drive the group to ruin just as it is reaching success.
Jason Kappus plays perhaps the most compelling character, Bob Gaudio, the young songwriter who is never really comfortable performing but whose genius launches the group to superstardom. Of course, every Fab Four has its Ringo and for the Four Seasons it was Nick Massi, dutifully portrayed by handsome but otherwise unremarkable Adam Zelasko.
As befitting a Broadway tour, "Boys" has plenty of technical whiz-bang going on but also knows the power of a single singer on an empty stage. The set consists of an industrial-looking two-story frame topped off with a large projection screen that allows plenty of room for mobile drum sets to cruise in and around. The projections are thankfully spare, an occasional cartoonish signifier or a simple splash of color. Even with its brisk pace, the show offers small moments of subconscious insight like when we see the Four Seasons perform from behind, with the spotlights shining on the audience just as glaringly as they do on the performers. It's just one of many bright moments in a smart and sparkling good show.
"Jersey Boys" plays at Landmark Theatre through January 19th. Tickets and information available at broadwayinrichmond.com or by calling 800-514-3849.