One way to attract an audience, as the theory goes, is to create a show from songs they already know. Thus was born the jukebox musical, made of existing hits from a particular composer or performer. Needing a subject too, this soon led to the jukebox biography, which tells the story behind the music illustrated with those familiar songs.
That explains the recent glut of Broadway shows about Carole King, Donna Summer, Cher, Michael Jackson and, soon to open, Neil Diamond. Each in its own way and to varying degrees, has been chasing after the artistic and commercial success of Jersey Boys, the previously little known backstory of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the 2006 Best Musical Tony Award winner.
The show opens the season at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre, following aborted plans to produce the musical at the beginning of this year at Roger Dean Stadium. The Maltz artistic staff and bean counters probably do not agree, but that scrapped al fresco scheme may be the best thing that ever happened to the show. Now comfortably residing in the expanded and renovated Maltz playhouse, Jersey Boys looks and sounds better than it ever could in a ballpark.
For starters, the show is jam-packed with some two dozen Four Seasons hits, including such pop classics as “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Oh, What a Night,” a virtual soundtrack of the lives of the Baby Boomers who will flock to see this impeccably staged production. But the reason Jersey Boys has seen so acclaimed, rising far above the jukebox bios that came before it and since, is the well-researched, cleverly structured and surprisingly involving script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.
From the fledgling group’s beginnings as a trio of school buddies, singing tight harmonies on the street corners of New Jersey, they were in and out of jail early on, then gained success after hiring a young kid with a freakishly high vocal range –– Frankie Valli. That success is soon complicated by loan debts to the mob and tax liens to the IRS, squabbles among the group and domestic strains caused by time away from home on tour. Each group member takes a turn narrating their history, but from different personal perspectives. Unlike most jukebox bios, where the book is mere continuity to introduce the next musical number, Brickman and Elice have constructed a dramatic script that could stand on its own without the songs.
Helming the production and choreographing the Four Seasons’ signature synchronized dance moves is Marcia Milgrom Dodge, known to Maltz audiences for her original takes on Hello, Dolly!, Fiddler on the Roof and The King and I. She gives Jersey Boys a seamless, cinematic sweep in a staging quite distinct from the Broadway original. (As she did in Dolly!, where she had the title matchmaker in a green gown rather than the iconic red, here she similarly avoids the group’s indelible red jackets in favor of plaids and green velvet.)
Because of his unique voice, casting the role of Valli can be a challenge, but Milgrom Dodge has certainly found the ideal performer in Josh Skurnik, whose high, nasal vocal delivery is most persuasive. He moves well and comes on strong in his dramatic scenes. Not surprisingly, Skurnik has played Valli in several previous productions. The rest of the group –– Matthew Schatz (Tommy DeVito), Jason Michael Evans (Nick Massi) and Quinn Corcoran (Bob Gaudio) –– all handle their roles’ considerable demands quite well, but as in life, they become mere back-up to Skurnik’s Valli.
Scenic designer Chen-Wei Liao makes her Maltz Jupiter debut with a couple of versatile raised circular platforms, but most of the specific scene-setting is managed by Steven Royal’s first-rate video projections. Bob Denton’s lighting makes the onstage scenes pop, Mika Eubanks handles the profusion of costume demands skillfully and music director Eric Alsford conducts a hip eight-piece orchestra while doubling pm keyboards.
With Jersey Boys, the Maltz Jupiter Theatre is back in top form. And now that it has shown that it can produce a superb jukebox biography, here’s hoping they do not return to the genre anytime soon.
JERSEY BOYS, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Rd., Jupiter. Through Sunday, Nov. 13. $68-$120/ 561-575-2223.