Of all the recent trends on Broadway, the rise of the jukebox musical may be the most odious. Digging up a bunch of old songs, crowbarring them into a thin, contrived plot, and then marketing the show as something fresh and new has got to be the laziest possible way to make a musical.
Which may be why Jersey Boys — the 2005 Broadway phenomenon about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — is so careful to avoid calling itself a jukebox musical in its promotional materials. Sure, it recycles the doo-wop group's songbook from the 1960s and 1970s, but any resemblance to more cynically manufactured shows like Rock of Ages and Mamma Mia! ends there.
For one, the story linking those songs is true. Written by Marshall Brickman — a screenwriter better known for his work on Woody Allen films like Annie Hall and Manhattan — and Rick Elice, the show is a Rashomon-like retelling of the group's history from the earthy, witty and often conflicting viewpoints of the members themselves.
And two, nearly all of the songs are performed concert-style, with the actors singing them to the audience rather than to other characters.
It's a whirlwind show, crammed with so many details of the band members' lives that I often felt I was watching one of those late-night infomercials pitching "Sounds of the ’70s" box sets. Just when I started to get into one song, they cut it short to move on to another scene and the next song.
But it's a testament to the depth of the group's catalog that they can do this for 2 1/2 hours and still leave 19 of their lesser-known hits (listed in the program as "The Ones That Got Away") unsung.
Tommy DeVito, the wisecracking tough guy who founded the group, kicks off the show by narrating the funniest of the four sections, "Spring." (The first Season ... get it?) At the time, the group — then called the Variety Trio, the Royal Teens and at least a dozen other names — spends as much time in jail as they do on the stage of neighborhood clubs. They seem destined to wallow in obscurity forever until Joe Pesci — yes, that Joe Pesci — hooks them up with an intellectual young songwriter named Bob Gaudio.
Gaudio takes over for the next section ("Summer"), a period that sees the Four Seasons sign a record deal with Bob Crewe, the gay producer/lyricist who would help them define their unique sound.
As Gaudio describes him: “We knew something was different about this guy, but back then we thought Liberace was just theatrical."
The 19-year-old Gaudio cranks out three hits ("Sherry", "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man") in almost as many days and the quartet is promptly launched into the stratosphere of stardom. Gaudio, meanwhile, achieves his own "personal first," losing his virginity to a prostitute as chronicled in the group's later hit, "December, 1963".
But the seeds of their eventual breakup have already been sown. In "Fall," the tension reaches a high point as bassist Nick Massi, the quietest member of the group, describes the standoff between bandmates after DeVito gets in trouble with the mob over some gambling debts.
Massi soon offers his own resignation. "Everybody wants to be up front," he says. "But if there's four guys, and you're Ringo — better I should spend some time with my kids."
Frontman Frankie Valli wraps it all up in "Winter." Emotionally, this is the weakest section. Although Valli suffers significant personal loss here, we're left dry-eyed because the secondary characters have only been stenciled in.
Still, the show manages to end on a high note as the four of them reunite for their 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
How do the actors compare to the original Four Seasons? Well, Brad Weinstock manages to capture the astonishing falsetto of the real Frankie Valli, but his normal range is much weaker, which leads to disappointment in bluesier songs like "Beggin'".
But all four of the leads play their roles with real humor and charm. And when they blend their voices together, you can hear echoes of the original group.
For most fans, that will be pleasure enough.
Through August 11, Tuesdays through Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Buell Theatre, Denver Center for the Performing Arts, 1101 13th St., Denver, Tickets, $30 to $125; call 800/641-1222 or visit denvercenter.org for information.