Sunday, February 8, 2009

Review of "Jersey Boys" - National Tour

I will admit right up front that I was not blown away by Jersey Boys, playing now at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, CT through February 22nd. Maybe my problem was with the musical itself or it could have been the pre-show hype I had been hearing for the past few years. I never got around to seeing the Broadway production, but everyone who ventured into New York City to see the show came away in ecstasy. I will also confess that most people in the audience—especially the ladies—were having a grand time.

Jersey Boys tells the story of the formation and rise to fame of The Four Seasons (the group only became Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons once most of the original members had left). The show gets underway at a deliberate pace as we are introduced to the band members, their quirks, and foibles, as they begin their slow ascension to pop superstars. The music is one of the main strengths of the show, but doesn’t really begin to scintillate until just before the end of Act I when The Four Seasons run through three of their biggest hits and most recognizable songs—“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man.” It was just before this success that group member Bob Gaudio, played by Josh Franklin, joined the band. His songwriting talents, along with producer Bob Crewe, portrayed by Jonathan Hadley, are what finally catapulted The Four Seasons to fame. The remainder of Act I, and most of Act II, bestow upon the audience a huge dollop of hits from Frankie Vallie, with and without, The Four Seasons.

Franklin, as Gaudio, is the glue that holds the show together. He exudes confidence, charisma, and a na├»ve charm that adds depth to his depiction of the singer/songwriter. Unfortunately, we have to wait through a good portion of the opening act before he makes his entrance. The other cast members were more two-dimensional in their characterizations, starting off with Matt Bailey as lead guitarist, Tommy DeVito. Bailey reminds me of a young Sheldon Leonard portraying some two-bit thug in a 1960’s sitcom. Steve Gouveia, who has been with the production since its pre-Broadway tryout, seems to be sleepwalking through his role as bassist, Nick Massi. Joseph Leo Bwarie makes a compelling Frankie Valli, with a great voice and soaring falsetto, but a matinee idol he is not.

The book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice does its best in highlighting the ups and downs of the pop quartet during its heyday throughout the 1960’s. I would have liked dates occasionally flashed on the multi-media screens hung above the stage to help anchor the story. Director Des McAnuff and choreographer Sergio Trujillo keep the pacing swift, never slowing the tempo too long during the sensitive moments on stage. McAnuff, though, could have done a better job helping the actors flesh out their roles to present a more vivid dynamic on stage.

Jersey Boys, even with all my prattling, is still an enjoyable musical that will have you tapping your feet throughout the show. At the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford through February 22nd.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Review of "Enter Laughing"

Enter Laughing, the musical revival receiving a sparkling production at the York Theatre Company, has had a storied history. Its genesis began with a 1958 autobiographical novel by the mult-talented Carl Reiner. That begat a successful 1963 stage adaptation by Joseph Stein which, in turn, became a 1967 film version. In 1976, Stein and Stan Daniels reworked the story into a Broadway musical, entitled So Long 174th Street, that bombed after 16 performances. Fast forward over 30 years to the Fall of 2008 where a revised edition of the musical opens to stellar reviews and, then finally, is brought back by the York Theatre Company for an encore engagement through March 8th.

Enter Laughing revolves around young David Kolowitz, a stage-struck and would-be Casanova who finally realizes his ambition of becoming an actor. In order to consummate his dream, Kolowitz must deftly handle his jealous girlfriend, an unsympathetic boss, and his overbearing mother. The show is very funny and, at times, laugh outloud hilarious, especially the scenes of David attempting to rehearse his big, break-through role. The musical boasts an exceptionally talented cast, the most notable being Josh Grisetti, as the determined David Kolowitz. Grisetti, gangly, charming and self-confident, succeeds in his quest, in spite of himself. His struggles to rehearse a simple laugh are uproarious. Veteran Bob Dishy, as the boozing, pompous, second-rate theater actor, Harrison Marlowe, is a pure joy to behold. Dishy’s comic timing and mannerisms could be a master class for would-be thespians. Marla Schaffel, playing Dishy’s onstage daughter, Angela, demonstrates real musical comedy prowess, especially during the show within a show finale. Lastly, Jill Eikenberry, most well-known for her role on television’s L.A. Law, in just a nod or shrug pours on the Jewish guilt better than my grandmother. Eikenberry’s real life husband, Michael Tucker, who plays her fictional spouse, David’s father, has a rather lackluster role, but his Act Two dance routine, "Hot Cha Cha," with Ray DeMattis is an absolute gem.

The score by Stan Daniels, performed by a three piece pit band, while not containing any memorable songs, is fun, sometimes bawdy, always entertaining within the context of the show. The sets and costumes are minimal but, here, less is better. The direction and musical staging by Stuart Ross is crisp, energetic and allows the actors the freedom and flexibility to make Enter Laughing such an enjoyable evening of theater.

In a theater season being known more for what has closed than what has opened, Enter Laughing provides the New York stage with a much needed shot in the arm.