'Jersey Boys' at the Palazzo

The Las Vegas production of the Broadway hit entertains with a blast of nostalgia.
By Charles McNulty
Times Theater Critic

May 5, 2008

LAS VEGAS -- Those soft-rock superstars from the Garden State have returned to their old desert stomping ground, and it's hard to imagine anywhere (outside Giants Stadium) they'd be more in their element. Sure, it may be a long way from the industrial corridor around Newark, where the lads came of age amid mobsters and pizza joints, but remember this is where they gorged -- and Madone, can they gorge! -- on the decadent fruits of stardom.

"Jersey Boys," the musical biography of Frankie Valli and the 4 Seasons, opened Saturday at the new Palazzo Resort-Hotel-Casino, and Vegas finally has a Broadway show that fits right in with the flashy sensibility of the place.

No, the production doesn't capture all the colors of the Tony-winning original. Des McAnuff's staging is still an impressive jukebox/hot rod, but the overall feeling at the acoustically lush Jersey Boys Theatre rarely rises above energetic competence.

The appealing cast is nearly unflaggingly kinetic, but the characterizations have a secondhand quality. For those who have seen other performers handle the roles in Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's admittedly paint-by-numbers book, the portrayals might seem to lack a certain individualizing grace.

But then does anyone come to Vegas for subtle acting? Blunt-force entertainment is the name of the game, and on that score the show doesn't disappoint. And how could it when the catalog of hits, insinuated into our collective memory by Valli's otherworldly falsetto, is still one of the truly phenomenal achievements in pop music?

The first half of the show, which traces the blue-collar band's sputtering rise from landfill beginnings, comes off best because Rick Faugno, who plays Valli, is more convincing as a goofy neighborhood wunderkind than a matinee idol. He's perennially the awkward teen who wants the tough guys to like him -- but not so much that they wind up getting him grounded.

The 4 Seasons' story is often narrated by local troublemaker Tommy DeVito (Jeremy Kushnier), the self-proclaimed mastermind of the group, which he started with Nick Massi (Jeff Leibow), a gifted musician who makes Ringo Starr look like a spotlight hog. DeVito is the one who takes Valli under his wing, showing him the ins and outs of the area's live-music scene while giving him a crash course in the criminal underground.

DeVito is starving for credit, and it's no doubt because he knows that his biggest contribution to the group was founding it. Valli's the star singer, and Bob Gaudio (the terrific Erich Bergen reprising the performance he gave at the Ahmanson Theatre), the last and definitely not the least of the original 4 Seasons, is the resident songwriting genius. In fact, if it wasn't for Gaudio, whose collaborations with producer and lyricist Bob Crewe (John Salvatore) developed the band's inimitable sound, there likely wouldn't be a Broadway juggernaut celebrating the group's rocky road to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Few moments in contemporary musical theater are as electrifying as when that harmonious blend is arrived at with "Sherry," the song that took the country by storm when it was performed on "American Bandstand" in 1962. McAnuff thrillingly re-creates the eureka spark, blending cameras and video screens with the seismic sensation of struggling musicians discovering their soul.

In a blaze of destiny, the 4 Seasons unleash a string of No. 1 singles, including "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man" and "Rag Doll." Oh, what a streak, to paraphrase "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" -- which provides a hotel-room glimpse at the follies of young men slingshotted to the top. Eventually, Valli's solo "My Eyes Adored You" is rolled out, and the audience is blissfully swaying, not at all minding that the show isn't going to observe the customary 95-minute cap for Broadway-to-Vegas transplants. (With a running time of 2 hours, 15 minutes, 10 to 15 minutes have been shaved off, but only a fanatical purist would miss them.)

Faugno's voice -- strong and clear but not always distinctive -- works better for the early songs, which require more buoyancy than personality. He loses a bit of steam with the ballads, and when it comes to "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," that orgy of crooning the industry was initially reluctant to take a chance on, the amplification must be pumped up to generate the excitement his rendition just doesn't have.

As Valli careens through difficult times -- from the breakup of his marriage to the death-by-overdose of his daughter -- he looks more like a somber boy than a man weighed down by error and experience. That may be part of the story, but Faugno's amiable shallowness makes the emotional saga limp.

Not that it really matters. It's the music that's the legacy, not the background tragedies. And the best thing about this version of "Jersey Boys" is the way it captures a group of Italian American kids' slow, then suddenly meteoric, ascent out of obscurity.

Besides, it's all so stylishly packaged, with a video-enhanced scenic design throughout that contributes to the production's visual sleekness. From costumes to lighting, the aesthetic mix of urban blight and showbiz razzle-dazzle is mesmerizing.

Obviously, no one can perform like the 4 Seasons (not even their own replacements after DeVito and Massi fall out). But the covers this company delivers of their classics, while not everything you might have dreamed of, still manage to send you floating into the casino on a nostalgic cloud.