Once upon a time, the then-Municipal Opera in St. Louis gave the audiences shows like Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince. Teenagers would wonder to themselves, Why are they doing stuff like that? Who wants to hear an operetta, for crying out loud? Of course, it was the people who paid for the tickets who wanted to see shows like that. They’d heard the music before – often – and they liked it. It was fluff, certainly; summer theatre, all across America, was like that.
Now it’s officially known as the Muny (having escaped the very misleading nickname those teenagers often heard, “the Opera”), and it’s the erstwhile teenagers who are buying tickets. This week’s offering, Jersey Boys, is, if you think about it, the perfect summer show, a light plot and plenty of music that lots of the audience grew up with, either when they were teens or listening to their parents tuning into the Oldies stations that proliferated in the ensuing years.
It’s the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, with plenty of creative liberty taken regarding the real story. That’s no big deal. This is all about the music that poured out of KXOK and WIL from bedrooms while doing homework or cars on dates at the A&W Root Beer stand, the background music to almost everyone of that generation’s life. And it sounds great. If the angle of the Muny’s audience seating was not so great, people would surely be dancing in the aisles.
Mark Ballas plays Valli, and he’s got the perfect voice for it, strong in the high registers so necessary for these songs. His acting chops come through, too, as the young Frankie matures before our eyes. Bob Gaudio, who joined the group at age 16 after writing the hit single “Who Wears Short Shorts”, is Bobby Conte Thornton, seemingly self-assured from the start, remaining strong no matter what. Nicolas Dromard’s Tommy DeVito, the guy who at least claims to have put the group together – although with the personnel changes, that claim’s a little iffy – works all the angles, but from the start brings all the colorful New Joisey stereotypes to vivid life. Keith Hines, who was here two years ago with the touring company that played the Fox, returns as Nick Massi. Hines gives the relatively silent Massi a memorable portrayal; when he speaks, as the old, old commercial used to say, people listen. And it’s not just because there’s a little Jack Nicholson thrown in.
Josh Rhodes directed and did the choreography, of which there’s plenty, as varied in style as the decades through which this music poured. The costume department obviously had another busy time preparing for this one as well, although to my recall, the costumes of the chorus, while wonderfully nostalgic, weren’t always quite coordinated with the period of the music being played. Still, miniskirts and go-go boots were as much fun as the early Sixties boat-necked, full-skirted frocks. A few glitches with mics not coming on when they should, but other than that, a fine opening night performance.
In fact, as I was leaving, a mom and dad were leaving with their kids. The young gentleman, perhaps 5, said enthusiastically to his father, “That was great! That was great!” Another theatergoer hooked for the next fifty years, we hope.
through July 16