Tuesday, May 6, 2008 | 2 a.m.
“Is Frankie Valli still alive?” wondered the young guy in the seat in front of me. After he conferred with his seat mates — among the four of them, they pronounced the singer dead — an older woman whipped around in her seat and set them straight: “He sure as hell is alive!”
He sure is — the singer celebrated his 74th birthday Saturday. And on the evidence of the musical “Jersey Boys,” which opened this weekend at the new Palazzo, Valli will go on forever.
The musical, which sketches the story of Valli and the Four Seasons through more than 30 irresistible pop hits, has been running on Broadway since 2005 and has toured Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and London. It’s the first show at the Palazzo, and it fits neatly in its custom-built theater with a retro-looking lobby and bars. There are a few Broadway-style touches: the performers’ names are posted in the lobby, there’s a real Playbill, and — a rarity in Vegas — an eight-minute intermission.
And “Jersey Boys” provides a true theater experience.
The show might be nicknamed “Dreamboys” — much like “Dreamgirls,” it’s a zippy trip through the four-decade rise and rise and fall and rise of a classic pop group. Funny, sentimental, and most of all fast, it’s framed and stylized like a comic book bio of the band. The snappy dialogue amounts to wisecracks in cartoon balloons — the actors barely have enough time to get them out before a song starts or the scene changes — and therefore “Jersey Boys” doesn’t go too deep. But the show devotes tender loving care to the music, and that’s what it’s all about.
“Jersey Boys” begins with a playwright’s prank: A French rapper barks out “Ces Soirees-la,” a gauche and garish version of a tune that sounds strangely familiar. Before the confused audience can protest, the scene dissolves to reveal four sharply dressed guys silhouetted against a landscape straight out of “The Sopranos.” And — standing beneath a street lamp — they harmonize on “Oh What a Night.” It’s a great moment, just bare-bones talent and indelible melody, the first of many spine-tinglers.
The story line is aptly divided into four seasons, set off by pop-art punctuations, Roy Lichtenstein-style comic book graphics that appear and disappear on projection screens, enhancing the slim story without overwhelming the actors.
Before they became the Four Seasons, our heroes went by other names, and most of them were small-town hoods, full of swagger and bluster and hard consonants.
(The Palazzo has posted a disclaimer noting that “Jersey Boys” contains “smoke, gunshots, strobe lights and ‘authentic Jersey language’ and is not recommended for children under the age of 12.”
“That’s our ticket out,” says group founder Tommy DeVito, as helium-voiced “Little Frankie Casteluccio” bounces onto the stage. “This kid who sings like an angel.” Valli may be the frontman and the best-known name, but “Jersey Boys” is really the group’s story, and oddly, we seem to learn less about him than about his fellow Seasons. Though his baby-faced character remains somewhat a cipher, Rick Faugno can sing (and croon and wail and soar), leaving a rush of pleasure song after song.
The central figure is bad-boy DeVito (Jeremy Kushnier), who makes sure his cohorts learn their singing skills as they go in and out of the joint — the guys call it “Rahway Academy of the Arts.”
While DeVito’s away for six months at the “Academy,” he makes sure that “harmony genius” Nick Massi (Jeff Leibow) coaches Valli, his protege and future meal ticket.
The Seasons start heating up when they meet missing puzzle piece Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a genius songwriter who pops out hits like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.”
The women in the group’s life never quite come into focus, but several other characters stand out. Bob Crewe, the group’s wily producer, is played by John Salvatore, channeling a sly, sassy Paul Lynde. And if you aren’t already familiar with the Four Seasons saga (I wasn’t), it may come as a surprise when a young Joe Pesci (Jonathan Gerard Rodriguez) rockets into their lives.
Two things stay with you as you leave “Jersey Boys”: The songs, of course. And the look, the pleasing simplicity of clean-cut guys in stylish suits and shiny shoes.
Everything about the production is as crisp and fresh as the costuming. The rat-tat-tat staging shifts from street corner to prison to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The actors don’t just harmonize in precision, they swivel, stomp and stop on a dime.
Conducted by Keith Thompson, the nine-piece orchestra (with the secret weapon of Las Vegas shows, pianist Philip Fortenberry), catches the period feel of these tunes while letting us feel like we’re hearing them for the first time.
“Jersey Boys” has the snap and crackle of a perfect pop song. If this show doesn’t make it in Las Vegas, it’s hard to imagine what could.