Oh, what a show!

The Times Leader, Feb. 7, 2014

Oh, what a show in Scranton

By Sandra Snyder ssnyder@timesleader.com 

Remember Francesco “Frankie” Castellucio and The Four Lovers?

Not to worry. Safe to say most people don’t.

That’s because before “Jersey Boys” the musical — following on the heels of “Jersey Boys” the book — tore up Broadway in 2005, few folks likely could tell the backstory behind one of pop music’s most famous foursomes, which answered to multiple monikers in its early days, before a divine sign, or a physical one in a nightclub, provided the one that stuck.

Those who missed the show on the Great White Way need head no farther than the Scranton Cultural Center to find out, in fabulously fun fashion, how Castellucio and company, the blue-collar boys mostly from Newark, became Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, making their way from the grittiest, smokiest nightclubs of The Garden State to their major breakthrough on “American Bandstand” and eventually to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, placed there, we’re reminded, not by dirty money but by the cleaner will of the people.

Along the way, you’ll be treated to love stories (largely of the failed variety), history lessons and a jukebox jam session you won’t soon forget.

Our four protagonists are led by Hayden Milanes as Frankie Valli — nee Castellucio — who changed his handle to something shorter that would “fit on a marquee” and spelled it with an i and not a y upon the instruction of his soon-to-be wife, who decreed that all Italian names still need to end in vowels and “y” is a “bulls**t” letter that “doesn’t know what it wants to be: a consonant or a vowel.”

More about that chain-smoking, petite pit bull of a scene-stealer later.

The man who arguably made, or at least argues he made, Valli/Milanes is the wickedly funny bad boy Tommy DeVito, a regular at the Rahway jail who racked up a million-plus debt for the group, doing everything from dodging taxes, skipping out on hotel bills and gambling, even on matters such as which fly would take off from a windowsill first. He’s played to near-perfection by Nicolas Dromard, who compensates in stage presence for what he lacks in stature.

Rounding out the group are the lankier Quinn VanAntwerp as one of the good guys — songwriter and Valli best man of sorts Bob Gaudio, who’d have retreated behind the musical scenes, at least later on, had he his druthers — and Adam Zelasko as Nick Massi, who spends the bulk of the time in relative obscurity, perhaps by design. By his own admission, at show’s end, we learn he was always the poor-sap Ringo of this quartet, though he deserves props for at least one dramatic high point: a rip-roaring tirade, during a pivotal future-deciding moment for the group, in which he details putting up with Tommy for 10 years. You try sharing a hotel room with this “personal nightmare,” who doesn’t change his underwear for three days, relieves himself in the sink and uses every last towel and leaves them all in a wet, reeking heap.

That’s just a taste of some of the laugh-out-loud dialogue in this blast of a bio-musical, which introduces us to four “kids” in the late 1950s/early 1960s, who, over the course of 40ish years, left an indelible mark on music history as they became the Big Men in Town.

The songs are, of course, the high points, and they really get going halfway through Act 1, when “Sherry” sets the group’s hat trick in motion. That jumpy singalong song is followed quickly and seamlessly by “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like A Man,” both of which come with some songwriter’s context. Did “Big Girls Don’t Cry” really spring from a man who slapped a woman across the mouth and asked what she thought of that? Was “Walk Like A Man” really a “MET-A-phor” (as hilariously put forth by a riotous Barry Anderson as Bob Crewe, the flamboyant musical genius/lyricist who explained this one was for every man who ever found himself wrapped around “a woman’s little finger?” The show is mostly true to life, so maybe. It is rather amusing to imagine “Oh What A Night” as a loss-of-virginity tune, complete with an “early delivery” and a milestone that “ended much too soon.”

Act II only ups the tempo as we head toward an iceberg with The Four Seasons and some things go up in smoke. (Speaking of smoke, it’s plentiful in this show, and it’s not the fake stuff; words to the wise looking for close-up seats.) Witness the breakup of Frankie’s marriage to Mary Delgado, a hard-boiled Marlana Dunn, who nails her Jersey accents and her train-wreck role as the left-at-home mother of Frankie’s first three children while he lives, she alleges, on the road with his “real” family. Meet his second love interest, the redheaded reporter Lorraine, who remains loyal to him despite the advances of Tommy, which set in motion a bitter, if silent, war between two of the four as the show must go on. She, too, eventually leaves Frankie, however, for the same reasons: He is married to the road. (And arguably to Bobby Gaudio.)

One of the most poignant moments — the death of Frankie’s youngest daughter, Francine (drugs), accompanied by the quiet-desperation ballad “Fallen Angel” — closely follows one of its most exhilarating, when the crowd does all it can to stay seated while Milanes belts out a rousing rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” the song that, shockingly, almost never was, except Gaudio believed in it and fought for it.

There’s an emotional juxtaposition there, and you almost want to will the death away, but it’s on the books and on the Valli record. Just when he was getting right with his four-octave, star-in-the-making daughter, he lost her. A lesson learned, and he vowed to “get it right” when he got his second chance with a new wife and new children.

That declaration was the lift needed to bring the obviously enamored crowd quickly back to its glorying as it hummed and danced along to the unofficial finale — the actual one was “Who Loves You?” — of “Oh, What A Night.” After a performance like this, could anyone really sit still?

Oh, what a night indeed.