Home News “Jersey Boys” is a jukebox time machine at Mercury Theater

“Jersey Boys” is a jukebox time machine at Mercury Theater

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The musical “Jersey Boys” has created a few stars in its roughly 20-year history, including John Lloyd Young, who I remember hearing sing Frankie Valli at Broadway’s August Wilson Theatre on Nov. 4, 2005, and watching an entire audience who had grown up listening to the Four Seasons feel like they had taken a time machine back to their youths.

But there’s a new guy to add to that list, now at the Mercury Theater Chicago: Michael Metcalf, a grittier but still sweet-voiced Frankie who sings atop Chicago’s first locally produced version of a phenomenally successful jukebox musical, as penned by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman that ran for 951 consecutive performances in downtown Chicago between 2007 and 2010.

Boy, did I have some adventures writing about that old-school show, that told the story of four rough-and-ready New Jersey guys who clawed their way to the top with a string of hits, mostly written by one of their own, Bob Gaudio, and with the lead vocals sung by a guy with a range well beyond three octaves. I spent a casino weekend in Atlantic City with Valli himself, eating Italian food and watching him deal with his fans and an AWOL comedian (his opening act). I met all kinds of characters in a world that was vanishing them and surely has disappeared now.

However much some arts people may wish otherwise, audiences adore “Jersey Boys,” offering as it does the elixir of eternal youth. Why else did it work so fabulously well? Here’s the summation of my many prior printed explanations: Gaudio insisted every song should have the same arrangement as the ones the fans knew; the story of this band was largely unknown at the time and it was filled with crazy stories of mobsters, prison, corruption and determination; the band members all were eccentrics and the singing was off the charts. And, of course, their repertoire was varied and the melodic hooks sharp as their attitudes. The show’s 30-plus numbers went from “Walk Like a Man” and “Sherry” to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”

Mercury Theater is using the cut-down version of the show, first developed for an off-Broadway run in 2017. You get the four guys (Adrian Aguilar is Tommy DeVito, Jason Michael Evans is Nick Massi and Andrew MacNaughton is Gaudio) and a small ensemble playing everyone else. No easy gig, this. There are only three women in this show (Haley Jane Schafer, Kayla Shipman and Maya McQueen) and they change costume and character so often, you’d swear there were twice that number.  Linda Madonia leads a very decent six-piece band.

Does this one compare with the original full monty, replete with horn section? Not really, although I’d note that the price point is different and if you saw the most recent tour, you weren’t getting that either. Rather, L. Walter Stearns’ and Brenda Didier’s new Chicago production, as choreographed by Christopher Chase Carter, uses the Mercury’s intimacy to its advantage and gives you something closer, aesthetically, to the early days of a band that played in bowling alleys, bars and Italian eateries.  I didn’t think the digital frame added much to the party, but otherwise the staging is entirely on the money, using every inch of this small stage.

I enjoyed this production better than some of the late tours; that’s mostly due to Metcalf, who I think should become a lot better known after people hear him sing here. He’s less polished in the Broadway sense than the many other post-Young Frankies I’ve seen and that’s all to the good. Valli (who still is touring, by the way) always was an emotional guy of quick-changing mood and that is what Metcalf reveals. Vocally, he’s distinctively fascinating and that is exactly as it is supposed to be. A killer performance, all in all, as backed by Aguilar and the other Broadway-quality principals.

New seats, too, have arrived at the Mercury with cupholders to boot, or rather to kick. I think this show will settle in here for a much-extended run this summer, especially once the Cubs crank up around the corner. All very good for the business and the city.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

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Review: “Jersey Boys” (3.5 stars)

When: Through May 19

Where: Mercury Theatre, 3745 N. Southport Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes

Tickets: $70-$90 at www.mercurytheaterchicago.com



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