‘Jersey Boys’ fails to recapture stage show’s magic

Playing the Four Seasons in a scene from Jersey Boys are (from left): John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Erich Bergen (Bob Guadio), Vincent Piazza (Tommy DeVito) and Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi) (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)
Playing the Four Seasons in a scene from Jersey Boys are (from left): John Lloyd Young (Frankie Valli), Erich Bergen (Bob Guadio), Vincent Piazza (Tommy DeVito) and Michael Lomenda (Nick Massi) (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.)

By Richard Ades

Chicago was a great movie. So were Cabaret, West Side Story and The Sound of Music.

But for every stage musical that made a successful transition to the multiplex, you can probably think of four or five that didn’t. So it’s not really surprising that the movie version of Jersey Boys isn’t half as much fun as its live predecessor.

Director Clint Eastwood made some good choices and some bad choices when he went about adapting Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s biographical tribute to the Four Seasons. One of the good choices was casting people who’d already proved themselves in the stage version, rather than following the usual practice of hiring film stars. That guaranteed that the actors playing the 1960s rock group could actually sing (unlike, say, Russell Crowe in the big-screen version of Les Miz).

One of Eastwood’s questionable choices was hiring Brickman and Elice to adapt their own hit musical. You’d think that would be a plus, as it would encourage the movie to stay true to the original, but staying true to the original isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Not to belabor the obvious, but a movie and a stage musical are two entirely different animals. On the stage, we can put up with dramatic developments being delivered in a kind of shorthand, as their main purpose is to propel us toward the next tune. In a movie, we generally need more realism.

We don’t get that in Eastwood’s Jersey Boys. Not only do many of the characters come off as Italian-American stereotypes, but the dramatic developments often hit us without warning, depriving them of their potential power. That’s especially true of lead singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), who’s faced with one emotional setback after another involving the women in his life—none of whom we’ve really gotten to know.

Compounding the problem, Young gives a rather unemotional performance in the role he originated on Broadway, though he makes up for it every time he launches into his dead-on impersonation of Valli’s falsetto warbling.

The actors playing the other members of the group—Vincent Piazza as unscrupulous control freak Tommy DiVito, Erich Bergen as songwriter Bob Guadio and Michael Lomenda as bass-voiced Nick Massi—are all fine. Even so, the movie seldom gives us a feel for what drives them other than their egos. And economic necessity: In an early voice-over, Tommy says the only ways to escape from their blue-collar New Jersey neighborhood are the Army, the mob and fame.

Speaking of the mob, it’s well represented by Christopher Walken as “Gyp” DeCarlo, a paternal gangster with a soft spot for the group’s music.

The film does manage to open the story up a bit in the first act, as when Frankie is roped into an attempt to rob a jewelry store. The heist goes humorously wrong when the would-be crooks attempt to load a huge safe into the trunk of an old Studebaker, with disastrous results.

Mostly, though, Eastwood sticks to the stage musical’s arc, which allows the members of the group to take turns narrating the Four Seasons’ rise from obscurity to Top 40 success, even as the quartet is wracked by jealousies and financial problems.

Like the original, the movie is at its best when it re-creates the band’s big hits, like Sherry, Walk Like a Man and, best of all, the Valli solo Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. Unfortunately, there aren’t nearly enough moments when the musicians are allowed to set aside their problems and just rock out.

As if to make up for this dearth, the closing credits are projected over a Bollywood-style song-and-dance number involving the whole cast, belatedly capturing the kind of energy that made the stage production a Broadway hit.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

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Stage version of Addams Family is more lovable than creepy

Stars of The Addams Family include (from left) Amanda Bruton (Grandma), Jennifer Fogarty (Wednesday), Dan Olson (Lurch), Jesse Sharp (Gomez), KeLeen Snowgren (Morticia), Shaun Rice (Uncle Fester) and Jeremy Todd Shinder (Pugsley). Note: Alternate actors play Lurch and Pugsley in the current touring production. (photo by Carol Rosegg)
Stars of The Addams Family include (from left) Amanda Bruton (Grandma), Jennifer Fogarty (Wednesday), Dan Olson (Lurch), Jesse Sharp (Gomez), KeLeen Snowgren (Morticia), Shaun Rice (Uncle Fester) and Jeremy Todd Shinder (Pugsley). Note: Alternate actors play Lurch and Pugsley in the current touring production. (photo by Carol Rosegg)

By Richard Ades

The musical comedy now unfolding at the Palace is called The Addams Family, but it bears only a superficial resemblance to its macabre source material.

Fans of Charles Addams’s New Yorker cartoons or the 1960s TV series will recognize the basic characters. They look much as they did on TV and in subsequent movies, except that daughter Wednesday (Jennifer Fogarty) has grown into a romance-minded young woman. Book authors Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (Jersey Boys) have even retained touches of the old Addams quirkiness, such as the family’s fondness for torture devices and graveyards.

Beneath these surface aberrations, though, these stage Addamses are surprisingly normal.

The thin plot hinges on Wednesday’s plan to introduce Ohio-bred boyfriend Lucas Beineke (Bryan Welnicki) to the family by inviting him and his parents (Mark Poppleton and Blair Anderson) to dinner. Confiding in her father, Gomez (Jesse Sharp), Wednesday reveals that she and Lucas have already agreed to marry, but she asks Gomez not to tell her mother, Morticia (KeLeen Snowgren). Her fear is that Morticia will try to sabotage the relationship if she learns of the engagement before she’s gotten to know the Beinekes.

Gomez protests that he’s never lied to his wife, but he reluctantly agrees to keep the secret from Morticia until that night’s dinner party. And on that brief bit of deception rests the entire storyline.

Musicals probably have been built on slimmer ideas, though I can’t think of any offhand. But the oddest thing about The Addams Family is how conventional the characters are beneath their gothic exteriors.

Gomez is like any devoted husband and father who’s trying to keep peace in the household. Wednesday is like any embarrassed teenager who thinks her family is weird (except that her family really is weird). Her brother, Pugsley (Connor Barth), may be tortured by his big sister literally rather than figuratively, but he loves her just the same.

Perhaps the most Addams-like of the characters are the herb-gathering Grandma (Amanda Bruton) and grunting butler, Lurch (Ryan Jacob Wood). The least Addams-like is Uncle Fester (Shaun Rice), who has metamorphosed from an anti-social, blunderbuss-brandishing curmudgeon into a romantic who enlists the souls of his dead ancestors in the cause of promoting Wednesday and Lucas’s love.

The result of all the changes made to the original characters—and of the subsequent changes made in response to the show’s mixed success on Broadway in 2010-11—is a warmhearted, rather conventional musical that’s designed to appeal to everyone but hardcore Addams fans.

Its pluses include Andrew Lippa’s songs, which are sometimes pretty (Wednesday and Pugsley’s Pulled) and sometimes catchy (the hummable Full Disclosure). The six-piece band is synthesizer-dominated and sounds it, but the players’ voices range from serviceable to great. Fogarty (Wednesday) and Anderson (Alice) are especially strong.

Working under Jerry Zaks’s direction, the cast is as funny as the material allows it to be. Jonathan Ritter’s choreography is especially enjoyable when it includes both living and non-living participants, as it does in Act 2’s Tango de Amor. The set and costumes (designed by original directors Julian Crouch and Phelim McDermott, with later set tweaks by James Kronzer) are appropriately gothic.

Amid all the singing and dancing, The Addams Family seeks to purvey the message that you have to be true to yourself. Considering the liberties it takes with its creepy characters, some might see that as a bit ironic.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present The Addams Family through April 13 at the Palace Theatre, 34 W. Broad St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $28-$78. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.

Tale of New Jersey songsters improves with age

Brandon Andrus, Nick Cosgrove, Jason Kappus and Nicolas Dromard (from left) play the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys (photo by Jeremy Daniel)
Brandon Andrus, Nick Cosgrove, Jason Kappus and Nicolas Dromard (from left) play the Four Seasons in Jersey Boys (photo by Jeremy Daniel)

By Richard Ades

Why is Jersey Boys so much more fun the second time around?

Part of it may be due to lowered expectations. Prior to the touring show’s Columbus debut in 2011, the press attended a preview during which we were told to expect a spectacle that would put every other musical to shame. We also were informed that male viewers, in particular, would be reduced to manly tears by this trip down the Four Seasons’ Memory Lane.

Well, it didn’t happen. Not to me, at least. The show’s historically correct harmonizing was great, but the dramatic portions left my eyes dry.

Fast forward to earlier this week, when the latest version of the touring show returned to the Ohio Theatre. I went, expecting little, and got a lot. In fact, I had a ball.

But the difference can’t be attributed entirely to my new lack of optimism. I think the production is noticeably better this time around.

That’s particularly true in regards to the key role of lead singer Frankie Valli. Two years ago, the featured actor hit the falsetto notes with aplomb, but he couldn’t carry off some of the tale’s most touching moments. Now, though, Nick Cosgrove does it all without a hitch—singing, acting and even a few athletic dance moves.

Actors playing the rest of the New Jersey-bred quartet are equally fine: Nicolas Dromard as the out-for-himself Tommy DeVito, Jason Kappus as songwriter Bob Gaudio and a comically laconic Brandon Andrus as Nick Massi.

With a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, this 2006 Tony Award winner relates the history of the Four Seasons by allowing each member of the 1960s rock group to tell his side of the tale in turn. It’s a clever tack and probably a necessary one, given that three of the four original members are still alive and don’t necessarily agree on the details.

A bevy of talented supporting cast members play the many people who wander in and out of the musicians’ lives. Key actors include Barry Anderson as record producer Bob Crewe, Marlana Dunn as Mary Delgado and Thomas Fiscella as sentimental gangster Gyp DeCarlo.

Under Des McAnuff’s direction, the cast and crew work as a unit while the action flows fluidly from one scene to the next, sometimes even in the midst of song. Meanwhile, Klara Zieglerova’s set design and Howell Binkley’s lighting design fill the stage with images that are subtly handsome and perfectly complementary. As a piece of stagecraft, Jersey Boys is a wonder.

But the show’s real highlight is the music—the just-right re-creations of hits such as Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. And that’s due not only to the actors’ vocal prowess but to conductor Ben Hartman and his onstage band. Special kudos to Mark Papazian, without whose emphatic drumming the night would be far less joyful.

Were my eyes still dry when I left the show this time around? Yes, but I didn’t care. The rest of my face was smiling.

Broadway in Columbus and CAPA will present Jersey Boys through Sept. 29 at the Ohio Theatre, 39 E. State St. Show times are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes (including intermission). Tickets are $28-$128. 614-469-0939, 1-800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com.