By Patrick Hurley
The story of the rise of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, Jersey Boys, playing now at the Ahmanson Theatre, is a high-energy juke box musical that relies entirely on spectacle and song recognition and falls completely short of compelling narrative.
Following a young Frankie Valli (Mark Ballas) from obscurity to stardom the show moves pretty quickly and mostly just uses songs to highlight his life. There are over 30 songs, most of which are only a couple of minutes long, and don’t even finish, it’s rather like highlights from the 1960s. As for the story itself, it’s pretty typical biopic material. It’s a sprawling story that follows too many characters to care about, and deals with nearly every stereotype you can imagine for a show about boys from Jersey. The Italian stereotypes are everywhere, even scenes with mobsters that play like bad B movie scenes. The women in the show are all clichés and docile creatures who are merely there as either sex objects or women at home waiting for their men. And I know, contextualizing is important, it was a different time, but strong material will rise above obvious tropes, because they want more than easy laughs. This show never does that.
Told in narration by each one of the Four Seasons, each during a different one of the actual four seasons, because…clever. It is strange though, seeing as how the play spans many years and not just one, but I guess there’s something to be said for attempting connective tissue in a disjointed and sprawling karaoke event. It gave the illusion of storytelling at least.
Act One mostly consists of songs from the era, and is occasionally crammed with exposition about how the song came to be recorded or how it influenced them, a little like having liner notes read to you in-between tracks on a compilation CD from the early 1960s.
Act Two then tries to go all story on us. But we don’t really have a footing in the world of these men, and so we’re really just there for the music, and while it’s much shorter, Act Two feels twice the length of Act One because of it.
What this show does have for it, is spectacle, and a very good vocal performance from Mark Ballas, whose Frankie is spot on in some of the songs. Great lighting design by Howell Binkley, and Jess Goldstein’s costumes are top-notch. The projections were odd, though visually impressive, I’m still grasping with understanding the graphic novel looking cartoons that accompanied some of the scenes. I was half expecting to see Batman-style “Ka-Pow” at some point. Brightly colored, comic book images that just didn’t seem to have a real purpose are a strange choice for a show about a 1960s singer.
Sergio Trujillo’s choreography is good. Everything felt era-specific and sharp. Director Des McAnuff is very skilled at pacing. The show moves through so many scenes and it stays pretty fluid. It only slows down in Act Two, but that’s a script issue. The book, by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice is simply too broad. It never zeroes in on a specific moment for long enough for anything to land. It’s the problem with most Hollywood biopics, it’s trying to tell too much of a life instead of finding that moment that shows the life of the subject in one or two major experiences. But such is the nature of the jukebox musical. It’s not about story. It’s about the audience clapping when they recognize a song. So if that’s your thing, this show’s for you.
Opens Thursday, May 18 at 8 p.m. (Previews May 16-17)
Through June 24, 2017. Ahmanson Theatre
Ticket Prices: $25 – $130
Tickets are available
Online at http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
By calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.972.4400
In person at the Center Theatre Group box office at The Music Center
Group Sales: 213.972.7231
Deaf community information and charge: visit CenterTheatreGroup.org/ACCESS.
Center Theatre Group/Ahmanson Theatre
At the Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.