Remember when the new millennium was supposed to bring good things? And what did we get: George Bush and the Jukebox Musical. I'm happy to see the first finally go away, but I fear the latter will be around for some time.
A jukebox musical -- just another name for the musical revue -- is a show featuring music associated with one performer, one composer or one time period, usually with a cheesy plot thrown in linking it all together.
The jukebox-musical era began in 2001 with the opening of ABBA's Mamma Mia! And producers hoping to repeat the phenomenal success of that show ... well "après Mia, le deluge": Good Vibrations (The Beach Boys), All Shook Up (Elvis), The Times They Are A-Changing (Bob Dylan) and Lennon (John Lennon). Without exception, each was greeted with streams of critical bile and closed quickly. Only one other has managed to rise above the muck: Jersey Boys, all about the life, times and music of 1960s hit vocal group Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. It opened in 2006, continues to run on Broadway and is now touring the country (stopping here via PNC Broadway Across America).
You may know nothing about the history of The Four Seasons, but if you've watched even one episode of Behind the Music you know the story. Tolstoy's unhappy families may be unhappy in different ways, but miserable bands all seem to fall apart for the same reasons. Jersey Boys leaves no show-biz-downfall cliché unturned as it runs through hard-luck beginnings, "overnight" success, world adulation, alcohol, sex, failed marriages, internal strife, hitting bottom and redemption. It's all exactly as you'd expect it to be, though Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice deserve credit for their polished and fast-paced book.
I don't know popular music enough to know how The Four Seasons fit into its history; a couple of tunes sounded familiar, but I have my doubts that their work was as earth-shattering as the show asserts. (Were they, as implied, as big and mold-breaking as The Beatles? Who knew?)
But that's just me. The Benedum Center audience certainly knew every single song and applauded loud and long for each. Judging from their responses, it seems that every single member considers Jersey Boys the greatest thing they've ever seen. At intermission, a woman I didn't know who was walking up the aisle grabbed my shoulder and said, "They just don't write 'em like this anymore, do they?" I felt like saying: "No, ma'am, not since the Geneva Convention."
But I didn't because, in spite of my thus-far snarky tone, I had a great time at Jersey Boys. For one thing, Josh Franklin, Joseph Leo Bwarie, Steve Gouveia and Erik Bates, as the eponymous boys, are a collective fireball of energy and talent, with tremendous back-up from a surprisingly large supporting cast.
But especially because this production, directed by Des McAnuff, is one of the most brilliantly directed musicals I've ever seen. There's not a single moment which hasn't been completely thought through, and anything needed to propel this story has been done. Not only are the book scenes and musical numbers thrillingly staged, but the transitions between them are every bit as incisive and intelligent. With Howell Binkley's extraordinary lighting and Sergio Trujllo's fluid choreography, McAnuff has created an exceptional piece of theater. Though the show itself may be as hollow as George Bush's head, if you sprayed the stage with WD-40 you couldn't come up with anything slicker.
Jersey Boys continues through Feb. 1. Benedum Center 719 Liberty Ave., Downtown. 412-456-6666 or www.pgharts.org