In a poignant scene from TV’s “Mad Men,” 1960s advertising impresario Don Draper pitches a revolutionary new name for an ordinary living room object, the slideshow photo projector. He’d call the device a Carousel, evoking its circular motion but also its sentimentality for memories past. The scene, and pitch, landed the deal because of its honesty for nostalgia: When set to a story, we remember our lives the way we wish to, and honor the fondness despite the less forgiving realities within.
“Jersey Boys,” which opened a two-week return engagement at Shea’s Performing Arts Center Wednesday night, is this scene in musical form. It’s the reclaimed story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the top-selling but underappreciated boy band of the 1960s that churned out mega hits but somehow failed to rank as historically as the Beatles, the Beach Boys or the Rolling Stones. The band’s founding members recount their versions of events from the mean streets of Jersey to the big lights of Atlantic City. Similar to the Carousel’s wheel of selective nostalgia, we cling to what we want to honor, and dance to what we wish we could get back.
It’s a brilliant show in this way. The musical is often considered the most legit of the jukebox genre, and that’s well-earned; it won the 2006 Tony Award for Best Musical against formidable competition. It is neither frivolous like ABBA’s “Mamma Mia,” (oddly) vanilla like the bluesy “Memphis,” nor offensively revisionist like Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” In lieu of manufacturing strange fiction to accommodate vague pop lyrics, which has become the norm for so many other productions, “Jersey Boys” tells a story of its songs’ origins, and in doing so, lets them exist in their natural habitat.
With few exceptions – usually a ballad parading as narrative movement – all songs are performed in the context of the working band’s steady hustle: under a street lamp, where a harmony first lands; in the recording studio, where an instrumentation completes the puzzle; on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” where the country goes gaga; and on the road, where theater and stadiums drown their silhouettes in blinding spotlights.
The decision to keep this glorious music native to its roots is the smartest thing the show does. It allows the story to steer the dramatic narrative arc, which is what Valli and his brothers – not to mention a tiring, pervasive theatrical genre – deserve. The amount of musical numbers is impressive, yet this still feels like a play with songs and not a musical with dialogue.
The result is an efficient, smooth, compelling piece of theater, with one of the finest pop scores around, regardless of origin. Director Des McAnuff, who also helmed “The Who’s Tommy” to Broadway in the 1990s with a similar perpetual motion, keeps this show flying at all times. Our anticipation of rags-to-riches clichés aren’t ignored, but acknowledged before moving onto the scene at hand.
This tour’s cast does a fine job of keeping pace with the big race, but unfortunately Brad Weinstock, as Valli, fails to deliver on all his levels. His mates keep the band’s synergy afloat, but Weinstock misses some key points in his central role. His falsetto is patently Valli, and his moves are tightly controlled. For what it’s worth, his opening scenes as a novice, eager singer are fittingly adorable. But he has trouble maturing Valli to the leading man that he became – from the foursome’s ensemble, to top billing and eventually a solo act.
When Weinstock raises his voice to imposing band founder Tommy DeVito (Colby Foytik), he barely makes a growl, let alone a roar. It could have, and should have, been a significant coming out.. Buying into this doe-eyed boy’s dream requires a promise of growth, and we just don’t see the return on that investment.
(Of note: Buffalo boy Devon Goffman, a swing in this cast, will perform the role of Tommy in the second week of the show’s two-week run. If there’s a better show at which to celebrate a hometown boy-done-good, it’s this.)
As quiet bass Nick Massi, Brandon Andrus bottoms out this volatile duo with his simple-minded but salient wisdom. Massi’s observations of backstage drama and unresolved histories gives the band’s real fans, those giving standing ovations mid-show and singing along as if at a concert, an insider’s perspective to add to the scrapbook: When things go down and fights get heated, everyone is to blame, and all are absolved.
And like our lesson on the Carousel, there’s nothing wrong with remembering things the way you want. Even when digging out old photos or dusting off old albums, the details belong in the past. It’s the music that belongs with us today.
Three and a half stars (Out of four)
Through May 18 in Shea’s Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St. Tickets are $34.50. Call 847-0850 or visit sheas.org.