Deer Hunter an unlikely catalyst for Jersey Boys

ON STAGE

What: Jersey Boys
Where: Royal Theatre, 805 Broughton St.
When: Tuesday through June 2
Tickets: $114.75-$125 from the Royal McPherson box office, by phone at 250-386-6121, or online from rmts.bc.ca

Bob Gaudio did not entertain the idea of a Broadway production about his life with the Four Seasons until he saw The Deer Hunter, the Oscar-winning film starring Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken.

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The movie arrived in 1978, when the run of hits written by Gaudio for his bandmates in the vocal group he co-founded in 1960 with Frankie Valli had slowed to a halt.

But the scene in the film where Walken, De Niro and their hunting buddies sing a drunken version of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, which Gaudio co-wrote with Bob Crewe and sang with the Four Seasons, wound up being the catalyst for what became the Broadway sensation Jersey Boys nearly two decades later.

“That rang a bell,” Gaudio said from his home in Nashville. “Apart from being a successful song, it was amazing to see it fit in another avenue, another place, another genre — which made the song even more effective. That was the beginning.”

Gaudio, 76, quickly got to thinking about several what-if scenarios. What if “a new project based on an old life” could garner some interest, he thought. He passed the idea around among his friends, and the feedback was immediate.

It took seven years for Jersey Boys to become a tangible product, but it was a hit on arrival in 2004.

“Critics can close a show, that’s the bottom line,” Gaudio said of the show’s instant success. “I don’t care how strong you think you are, they can tear you up. You can have a fan base, but you can’t run for 12 years unless you have a decent amount of reviews. We were very fortunate.”

The original Broadway production wrapped its Tony Award-winning Broadway run in 2017, and remains one of the most decorated and beloved jukebox musicals in New York theatre history, with a movie adaptation directed by Clint Eastwood in 2014.

A touring production of Jersey Boys, overseen by Tony Award-winner Des McAnuff, with a book by Marshall Brickman (an Oscar winner for co-writing Annie Hall) and a cast of 20, makes its way to Victoria on Tuesday for the first of eight performances at the Royal Theatre.

The show will be taken off the road for good in July, however, which means the dates in Victoria will be a rare opportunity for local audiences to see the story of singers Gaudio, Valli, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi on stage.

Those who know the rags-to-riches story root for the characters at the heart of Jersey Boys, and the cast — Tommaso Antico (who plays Gaudio), Corey Greenan (Tommy DeVito), Chris Stevens (Nick Massi) and Jonny Wexler (Valli) — has met an overwhelming reception on the current run.

“If Des did something perfect, it was that he walked the line — not too much music, not too much story,” Gaudio said of McAnuff, who won a Tony Award for directing the original. “Just a perfect marriage.”

Authenticity has played a big role in the positive reception, according to Wexler. “I sometimes have a hard time with musicals that feel, if the tension in the scene is so great, the only thing left to do is sing. There is something inauthentic about that.”

He said the actors playing the Four Seasons were given artistic licence to add new elements to the characters they are playing, which was important in bringing back the touring production, since some audience members had already seen it on Broadway.

Wexler, who has been with Jersey Boys for five years, first joined the production in the role of Joe Pesci — the Oscar-winning actor, who in real life was a cog in the formation of the Four Seasons — and later moved into the Valli character.

He has come to adore the band’s catalogue — which includes No. 1 singles Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, Rag Doll and December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night) — and realizes the music is the big attraction for many.

But he believes the show would not have worked if the music was the story in and of itself. Jersey Boys is a slice of life about the American Dream, featuring four singers from hard-scrabble beginnings reaching the top of their profession. That resonates with the audience.

“The music is amazing and definitely stands on its own,” Wexler said.

“But the way it is used, and crafted into the story, along with the choreography, creates what our music director calls a ‘toboggan ride.’ Once the ride starts, the audience never falls off and the ride never stops.”

Even Gaudio, the Grammy Award winner and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member, was caught off guard when Jersey Boys broke big.

“I never really knew the connection with the public. Sure, we sold records and so on, but how deep the connection went was not in my face until I saw Jersey Boys. Watching people walk out of the theatre and talk about it all the way down the street to the subway, you can’t top that.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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