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By Jenn McKee
Though I’d been looking forward to seeing the Tony Award-winning musical “Jersey Boys” – now making a national tour stop at the Fisher Theater – for several years now, when the day finally arrived, I was a little reluctant to go.
This was because the Newtown tragedy happened that same morning, and it absorbed all of my attention for hours on end, making me feel scared and angry and vulnerable and heartbroken. Everyone in the sold out Fisher Theater (including the performers) likely felt the same way.
I even wondered, at some point on Friday, whether they might cancel the performance. But as the old cliche dictates, the show must go on – and with good reason, it turns out. For in numbing times of loss, theater invites and allows you to get out of your own head for a while and instead get lost in someone else’s story, offering a much-needed respite.
As if to underscore this, Friday night’s audience rushed to offer sustained, effusive applause after several of “Jersey Boys”‘ infectious numbers. Even the performers looked a bit taken aback by the enthusiasm and energy that greeted them. And I say all this not to wax poetic, but rather to explain that my wild enthusiasm and appreciation for the show was likely amped up to even greater heights by the sense of gratitude I felt for getting the chance to experience something so polished, charming, well-crafted, and fun on what had been a dark, dark day.
The show, of course, tells the story of the 1960s pop sensation Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, consisting of: band founder and leader Tommy DeVito (John Gardiner), who has run-ins with the law and runs up gambling debts; routine-obsessed bass Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda); talented young songwriter Bobby Gaudio (Miles Jacoby); and the young guy with the angelic, high voice that made everyone sit up and take notice, Frankie Valli (Nick Cosgrove).
What you’ll notice within minutes of “Jersey Boys” is what capable hands you’re in, in terms of the storytelling. Book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice masterfully cherry pick salient details from the group’s biography, and not a word or moment is wasted; meanwhile, director Des McAnuff keeps the pace snappy without ever losing clarity, so that even though we’re quickly hopping to different locales in the opening moments while absorbing the necessary exposition, the energy stays high, and the audience stays engaged.
It doesn’t hurt either, of course, that the cast is uniformly outstanding.
Lomenda is hilarious as quirky Nick; Gardiner makes Tommy self-assured and witty, but also low-burn menacing; Jacoby’s Bobby is unabashedly candid, aware of his strengths and weaknesses, and wise beyond his years; and Cosgrove is a knockout, with vocals that soar.
Klara Zieglerova designed “Jersey Boys” steel-girded set, which features a raised bridge across the stage that provides a second level for the play’s action. Jess Goldstein’s costume design helps The Four Seasons come to life more fully on stage, while also, with other characters, hinting at the passage of time. Michael Clark’s Roy Lichtenstein-inspired projections sometimes help establish setting, sometimes just echo the action; and Howell Binkley’s lighting design keeps the audience’s eye where it needs to be as the fast-paced tale unfolds. Finally, Sergio Trujillo’s choreography perfectly captures The Four Seasons’ crisp, synchronized dance moves; it’s a joy to watch.
Interestingly, “Jersey Boys,” in some ways, shouldn’t work as well as it does. When biographical adaptations try to focus on a broad range of time (as “Jersey Boys” does) instead of a specific, pivotal moment, they often feel shapeless, baggy and unsatisfying. And as a rule, I’m not a big fan of the juke box musical – the shows often feel painfully labored and self-conscious. But Brickman and Elice have cracked the code by letting each of the band members tell their side of the story, and incorporating The Four Seasons’ ear-candy music at perfect, and thematically relevant, intervals.
No, I wasn’t alive when The Four Seasons hit it big; and the show didn’t make me nostalgic for that time. Instead, it invited me to tag along on the group’s ride to fame, bumpy though it was. And I couldn’t have enjoyed it more.
Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. Tuesday-Sunday through Jan. 6, plus Monday, Jan. 31; no performances Dec. 25 or Jan. 1. 2 hours, 30 minutes; contains adult language. $34-$94. 313-872-1000. http://www.broadwayindetroit.com