If you want a front-row seat to the Great Recession's impact on the arts industry, check out the discounts on the Great White Way. Big-budget movie musicals like Disney's The Little Mermaid and Shrek, the Musical have been offering buy one—get one deals and lottery rush ticket promotions. Many titles show up at the TKTS same-day sales booth; a slog through their criminally mismanaged queue netted me half-price prime seats to Waiting for Godot (starring Nathan Lane, Bill Irwin and John Goodman) over the normally busy Easter weekend. But Jersey Boys is still riding high despite the downturn; even the scalpers stalking Duffy Square only have scattered singles.
Jersey Boys tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons through their multimillion-selling songs (written by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe) and a script by 1977 Oscar-winner Marshall Brickman (Annie Hall) and Rick Elice. Under the direction of Des McAnuff (The Who's Tommy), the show became a critical and financial success, spawning multiple productions worldwide and sparking renewed interest in the still-touring Valli. (A recent show at Universal Studios' Mardi Gras featured a packed crowd of all ages singing along to "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You.") The 2006 Tony winner for Best Musical still sells out nearly four years after its Broadway debut, but Orlando is receiving nearly the same experience with a fraction of the hassle since the national touring company arrived May 4 at Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre (performances continue through May 24).
I spent a few minutes on the phone with Graham Fenton, one of the performers helping to tell that story. Fenton is no stranger to Orlando: A fellow Jersey boy (raised about an hour south of Philly in Millville, N.J.), Graham moved here after attending Pittsburgh's Carnegie Mellon University when his wife, Nicole Kaplan, was cast in Finding Nemo, the Musical at Disney's Animal Kingdom. He was working part-time for the Mouse when he attended an audition in Miami; by the time his return flight landed in Orlando and he turned on his phone, he had a voice mail inviting him to New York.
What followed was "Frankie Camp," a grueling three-day audition process that prospective Frankie Vallis are subjected to. First came a day with a vocal coach, then a day of scene work with an assistant director and a final day of dance choreography. It culminated in an audition in front of a panel that included Valli himself.
Fenton never spoke directly to Frankie, but he got the nod to portray him and has gone on to do so on Broadway, in Las Vegas and across the United States. While each of the three productions is similar in most ways, Fenton says the New York and New Jersey audiences "identify" strongly with the "hometown" characters. The Vegas show has been shortened by eight minutes, and it get "different reactions" from the casino crowd. On tour, Fenton has found different cities "laugh louder at one line or another," citing a stop in Gaudio's home of Nashville, where the audience ate up the local references.
Jersey Boys stands out from the growing herd of so-called "jukebox musicals" for several reasons, according to Fenton, who rightly associates the nascent genre with "fluff" and "convoluted stories." Jersey Boys is "a play with really great music," with songs tied to the show "in a more realistic way," usually in the context of a performance or recording studio, he explains. The "street to riches" story isn't a whitewash, but a "grounded-in-reality" look at the problems that come with fame: "money, women, drugs, the law" add up to "rich" dramatic material.
Living Valli's life and singing his signature high-falsetto tunes is an endurance test; hence an unconventional casting arrangement. While all casts contain a couple of understudies, Jersey Boys is one of the few to designate an alternate for an adult leading role. Fenton performs two shows every week (he'll be on for the early shows on May 7, 10, 16, 17, 21 and 23), while Joseph Leo Bwarie performs six — it would be "impossible for any one person," Fenton says. He always has had a strong natural falsetto and is trained in opera, but still had to "learn to take care of `him`self physically." That means no caffeine, alcohol or smoking; instead, a steady diet of Throat Coat herbal tea and lots of fluids.
Fenton says the Jersey Boys cast is "fortunate to have jobs as actors" and he's grateful the "show is still strong despite the economy," half-joking that it's a good way to "forget `your` economic troubles." But for my money it's still the second-coolest entry on his résumé: In 2006 he played an apostle to Ted Neeley's messiah in a one-night-only production of Jesus Christ Superstar, alongside Ben Vereen as Judas and Jack Black as Herod. The star-studded audience included Harrison Ford, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Geena Davis and director Gary Goddard, the auteur behind the 1987 Dolph Lundgren Masters of the Universe movie and Universal's Terminator 2: 3D and Spider-Man attractions. The theme-park circle is complete, proving once again that Orlando is the Kevin Bacon of the entertainment firstname.lastname@example.org