Review: ‘Jersey Boys,’ Downsized

Posted December 28, 2017 3:28 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Rock shows tend to work better in small rooms than in arenas, as the performers’ proximity forges an intimate, often fevered bond with the audience. So the reopening of the Four Seasons-inspired musical “Jersey Boys” — whose numbers are often staged as if in concert — at an off-Broadway theater less than a year after it concluded a 12-year-old run on the main stem could have been an opportunity for renewed energy.

But while the Tony-winning original could soar to goosebump-inducing heights as heady as Frankie Valli’s falsetto, the new production remains tied to the ground.

That this “Jersey Boys” still delivers some Pavlovian thrills is a testament to the solid foundation laid by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book, and by Des McAnuff’s deceptively straightforward production, centered around a bi-level scaffold (the set is by Klara Zieglerova).

The jukebox musical, especially of the biographical persuasion, is littered with clunkers — for every “Beautiful,” there is a “Lennon,” a “Ring of Fire” or a “Baby, It’s You!” Back in 2005, when it first opened, “Jersey Boys” made the genre look easy.

The show deftly tracks the story of the Four Seasons from their early fumblings in 1950s New Jersey to their recruiting of the boy wonder Frankie Valli (Aaron De Jesus) and the songwriter Bob Gaudio (Cory Jeacoma). Truckloads of chart-toppers, including “Sherry” and “December, 1963 (Oh What a Night),” ensued, and the band was inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

Professionally speaking, the quartet remained on an upswing for years. Behind the music, the story was less rosy. Alpha-male guitarist Tommy DeVito (Nicolas Dromard) and steadfast bassist Nick Massi (Mark Edwards) had rap sheets and, in DeVito’s case, a mob connection; Valli cheated on his wife and lost a daughter to drugs.

We go, or rather rush, through these events at a relentless pace. Perhaps it was the bigger theater that allowed the book to breathe; at the subterranean New World Stages (where “Jersey Boys” plays next door to another Tony winner, “Avenue Q”), there is whiplash in the air.

McAnuff (“Jesus Christ Superstar,” “The Who’s Tommy”) is among the Broadway directors most simpatico with rock and pop: He knows how to stage songs with gut immediacy. So even with a smaller cast and band, the off-Broadway production still delivers grin-inducing moments — the buildup to, and ultimate reveal, of the hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” chief among them.

But like the Four Seasons, “Jersey Boys” needs a charismatic lead (John Lloyd Young, the original Broadway Frankie Valli, won a Tony and reprised the role in Clint Eastwood’s movie adaptation). De Jesus is on shaky ground early on, when he has to play Valli as a teenager, and his upper range can have a nasal overtone.

Fortunately he gains singing and acting confidence as the character ages, but he does not pull the limelight the way Young did. The supporting cast is fine, especially Edwards as the laconic bassist, seething at having to share hotel rooms with the hedonistic DeVito.

In its current state, “Jersey Boys” is like a cover band covering a cover band — your enjoyment will be in direct proportion to your love for the songs.

Event Information:

‘Jersey Boys’: At New World Stages, Manhattan; 212-239-6200, jerseyboysinfo.com. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.