Saturday, October 20, 2007

Hi, everyone, I'm back from a month-long break, and feeling pretty good! :D

Now that the holiday's over, I can spill the beans with my mother's permission: my parents and I were in the USA, touring Los Angeles, Las Vegas and New York City, with a stopover in Seattle for the American College of Emergency Physicians' ( ACEP ) Annual Scientific Assembly.

Many more detailed posts ( with photos ) will follow, of course, but highlights of the trip include:

1. Watching Jersey Boys on Broadway -- a full review is included below. I'm still floating from the Wednesday, October 17th performance! :D

2. Catching Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway - but not just ANY Cyrano revival, but one featuring Hollywood stars Kevin Kline and Jennifer Garner, among others. A full review will follow at a later date.

3. Bumping into Nicolas Cage at the back lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, woohoo!

4. Watching the Chippendales in Las Vegas. ( Boy, was it good! :))

5. The Grand Canyon, where we took not one, but TWO helicopter rides offering spectacular views of God's own handiwork, and went out on the newly constructed Skywalk ( not for the faint-hearted! ).

6. A fabulous cruise in perfect -- and I really mean PERFECT -- weather along the Hudson River, where we enjoyed wonderful views of the regal Statue of Liberty, Manhattan skyline ( awesome! ) and Brooklyn Bridge.

7. Times Square! Enough said. :)

8. Disneyland at Anaheim, California -- a totally different parade, loads of great 'live' music everywhere, and getting up close and personal with Mickey Mouse himself!

9. The San Diego Zoo, where we saw a real panda up close for the very first time.

10. Meeting up with many good friends, both American and Singaporean. Always a comfort when you're far from home. :)

Okay then, on to the business at hand...

Review of Jersey Boys, August Wilson Theatre, Broadway, New York City
October 17th, Wednesday

Before the trip, I'd been doing a lot of research on the Broadway scene, but only got my first glimpse of Jersey Boys at the Emmy Awards show a few months ago, where the cast ( not from NYC though ) sang an energetic medley comprising classic hits Walk Like A Man, Can't Take My Eyes Off You and Who Loves You.

Check it out on YouTube here.

That was when I decided I just HAVE to watch them. Only problem was, Broadway has an, err, interesting ticket purchasing system, where brokers snap up all the good seats, then sell them at much higher prices. So the only way I could get something along the lines of the first few rows, dead centre, was to buy premium tickets, which cost upwards of US$300 a piece ( working out to S$450 ).

Yow. Too rich, even for me.

It was an intense battle between my brain and my heart -- the former didn't think it was worth it, but the latter had a gut feeling it was. In the end, however, the cerebrum won.

But not for long. Thanks to a stroke of beginner's luck at the slot machines in Vegas, Caesars Palace ended up paying for 2 premium tickets to JB, woohoo! :)

Just some background story on Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons: there's a biography written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and the musical was first conceived sometime in 2003, before debuting in California to rave reviews, and eventually moving to Broadway, NYC, where it then scooped the 2006 Tony Awards for Best Musical and Lead Actor in a Musical, among many other accolades.

Jersey Boys deftly combines all their Billboard hits with a witty and poignant script, casting excellent actors in the major roles, topping it off with terrific musical arrangements and beautifully choreographed numbers, resulting in what I can only describe as "magic in its purest form".

Of course, it helps if you're familiar with their songs and are a fan of '60s music, which my mom and I are.

If you're interested, the official JB website can be found here. Click on Media and Video to see actual recordings from their Broadway performances ( big treats, trust me :)).

JB opens with a high-energy rendition of Ces Soirees-La, which is essentially December 1963 ( Oh, What A Night ) done in French. It then cuts quickly to the early years, where self-proclaimed bad boy / mentor Tommy DeVito ( played fabulously by Christian Hoff ) lays the foundation for the tale to follow. He describes how he discovered Frankie's unique sound and powerful pipes at the tender age of 16, then proceeded to groom him for much greater things, initially playing in nightclubs, rehearsing in churches and hunting for the right 4th Season, the right manager, the right song, weathering loads of obstacles along the way yet never giving up hope.

They finally hit paydirt when they recruited Bob Gaudio ( played by superb tenor and Cary Elwes lookalike Daniel Reichard ), a prolific songwriter who was also inspired by Frankie's voice, which prompted him to remark, "I know I need to write for this voice."

What then followed was a long string of massive hits, from Sherry to Big Girls Don't Cry, Walk Like A Man, December 1963 ( Oh, What A Night ), My Eyes Adored You, Dawn ( Go Away ), Big Man In Town, Beggin', Can't Take My Eyes Off You, Fallen Angel, Rag Doll and Who Loves You.

The group eventually split, but reunited in spurts, most notably for a special performance when they were inducted into the Rock 'N Roll Hall of Fame just a few years ago.

They admit they were no angels, falling victim to gambling, divorce and other heartbreaks over the decades. But what remains is a solid friendship built from their childhood days, and loyalty which no form of adversity can ever destroy.

The script moves at a crackling pace, delivered in a strong New Jersey / Italian twang, so if you're not familiar with the accent, you'll get lost pretty quickly. Luckily, I've seen enough Hollywood mafia films to switch my brain to the right channel, so it was indeed a pleasure to be able to catch all the punchlines -- and there were many of them! :)

The sets are simple but eye-catching, featuring Dick Tracy-esque art, screen projections of New Jersey landscapes, and cool cameraman / TV viewer perspectives for sequences where the Seasons perform on American Bandstand. There's also an ingenious backstage view for Walk Like A Man, where the guys stand with their backs to us, facing a black screen as flashing lights go off ( mimicking cameras from fans in a simulated audience, or maybe just lots and lots of stage spotlights ).

But of course, the 4 leads are the highlights of the show, with John Lloyd Young doing an amazing job with his falsetto. Turns out he looks a lot younger than his age ( born in 1978, but looks like he's below 25 ), and could easily pass off as ( "Numb3rs" star ) David Krumholtz's brother, don't you agree? He blows the roof off the theater when he hits those impossible notes! I know he has a famous vocal coach helping him along, but still...! He is absolutely pitch perfect in a 'live' setting -- something we should all admire him for, considering the level of difficulty involved -- and displays great versatility as he switches from rock 'n roll to ballads, showcasing an incredible vocal range and crisp nuances in his deliveries.

I particularly enjoyed the slower pieces, like My Eyes Adored You, Can't Take My Eyes Off You, and Fallen Angel. Major goosebumps!

Christian Hoff is a hoot as Tommy DeVito, who's something of a wise guy crippled by multiple weaknesses but who's just too damn proud to admit it. He doesn't sing solo much, but more than makes up for it with his larger-than-life personality, grabbing you by the balls whenever he delivers a punchline with a poker face or simply stands there with a knowing smirk. What a great character!
Daniel Reichard, who plays songwriting wunderkind Bob Gaudio, is equally engaging, with his widely innocent eyes and smooth tenor voice. A memorable scene where Gaudio and Valli seal a "Jersey contract" with a straightforward handshake and zero paperwork ( it's honoured to this very day, more than 40 years later ) is one of my personal favourites.

And last but not least, there's J. Robert Spencer as Nick Massi, who's somewhat quiet, but opinionated! A scene where all 4 Seasons voice their grouses turns into a riotous comedy when Massi suddenly stands up and lambasts DeVito for his stomach-churning bathroom habits. It's priceless!

If you've ever wondered what truly perfect casting entails, this is it. Young, Hoff, Reichard and Spencer come together in perfect harmony despite their varied looks and personalities, delivering top-notch performances without ever stopping for a breath ( okay, they rested a little during the 15-minute intermission ). Having done the same show almost daily for the past 2 years, the lines and songs come fast and furious without a hitch, but here're a few other surprises ( at least on October 17th ), which I will always treasure:

1) There were a few points during the course of the show, especially in the 2nd act, when the actors were visibly trying to suppress smiles, grins and outright laughs during the punchlines. Being in the centre of the 5th row afforded superb views of their facial expressions, and I loved every minute of it! This happened mostly with Young and Spencer, but also a little with Hoff and Reichard.
Young hid his smile by positioning his right hand strategically over his mouth and furrowing his brows in an attempt to appear serious, but I caught an upturned corner of his lips. Aww, how endearing! :)

2) During Can't Take My Eyes Off You, there's a short interlude when the brass section comes marching out on a balcony behind and above Young, while Reichard stands on the same balcony near the front of the stage, watching the performance.
I kept my eyes on both actors, and saw a HUGE grin spread across Young's face, before he glanced over at Reichard, who was also beaming.
This was clearly a very spontaneous moment, and I have no idea if anyone else saw it. It just shows how much they love what they're doing, and it honestly made my heart soar.

3) The audience that night was very appreciative, bestowing raucous applause and lots of whistling and cheering after every number. But these were most enthusiastic after the biggest hits ( Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry, Walk Like A Man, Can't Take My Eyes Off You ), and it's interesting how the actors responded, 'cos I was under the impression that they would've gotten used to such a reception by now.
But no! There were times when they genuinely looked shocked by it all, perhaps even slightly overwhelmed. This just illustrates how none of the fame has gone to their heads, a quality I find most admirable. :)

4) The performance of Cry For Me, when the 4 Seasons get together for the very first time, took my breath away! I was literally in heaven for 2 minutes, holding my breath! After they finished, I leaned over to my mom and said, "That was SO BEAUTIFUL!", only to hear a lady directly behind us say the exact same thing to her companion. Wow... :)

The Jersey Boys tickets are the most expensive ones I've ever purchased, but it is worth every single cent. I've always dreamed of watching a great Broadway musical, and I'm so glad it's this one. One of the perks of sitting in good seats is being able to make direct eye contact with the actors. Whether they actually remember any of our faces is beside the point ( I doubt they recall much, which is understandable ). But for the audience member, i.e. me, I made eye contact with every single one of them, and it was marvelous!

A major high point occurred during Young's delivery of Fallen Angel, a haunting ballad dedicated to Valli's daughter who died from a drug overdose at the tender age of 22. Young was seated on a bench with his back to the hall, then he slowly turned as he sang the opening verse, sweeping his eyes over the first few rows, before resting them ( and I swear this happened ) somewhere in my vicinity.
Again, I'm not assuming he registered anything as he looked my way, but from where I was sitting, it was an unforgettable moment, and the fact that this song is so beautiful made the experience completely surreal. Wonderful. :)

The rousing finale was rewarded with a standing ovation which spilled over into a refrain of December 1963, with the guys dancing and clapping along with us. It was just one gigantic party in there, woohoo!

After the show, I contemplated hanging around the stage door to get autographs, but nobody seemed interested in staying back, with everyone rushing into cabs or subways, or running to nearby restaurants and hotels. My mom didn't feel comfortable with the thought of us being left behind all alone, so I had to relent and return to the hotel pronto. Sigh, a missed opportunity indeed.

Anyway, Young will leave JB come November 22nd, moving on to new projects, no doubt. But the show will go on for many many years, so if you're ever in the USA, you can check the Internet for venues and schedules, 'cos it's playing in a few different states. I just don't know whether other casts can capture the same spirit and energy, even if the singing and dancing are up to par.

Before I end this entry, here're a few quotes from critics to whet your appetite. If you're into the Four Seasons or even just '60s music, and want to know what real magic feels like, Jersey Boys is for you.

"Too good to be true! Jersey Boys is terrific -- a show dynamically alive in music, while as a drama, it catches the very texture, almost the actual smell, of its time." -- Clive Barnes, New York Post

"The crowd goes wild! I mean the real crowd at the August Wilson Theatre, who seem to have forgotten what year it is or how old they are, or, most important, that John Lloyd Young is not Frankie Valli. And everything that leads up to the curtain call feels as real and vivid as the sting of your hands clapping together." -- Ben Brantley, The New York Times

"A fast-moving script electrified by most of the group's greatest hits. Energetically weaving story, songs, visuals and performances, Des McAnuff stages a compelling rush of events that pauses only occasionally to savor the beauty of the songs." -- Michael Sommers, The Star-Ledger

"The most exciting musical Broadway has seen in years." -- Chris Jones, The Chicago Tribune

"Jersey Boys should run for about twenty years! The songs -- and you'll be amazed how many hits there are -- are all flawlessly delivered. It's the music that counts, and the music is sheer joy!" -- Jacques le Sourd, The Journal News

"It will run for centuries." -- Richard Corliss, Time magazine

Thank you, guys, for a magnificent evening that lifted our spirits and made us believe we were back in the '60s watching the REAL Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. What a tour de force! I will most definitely see it again when I return to New York! :D