Movies of musicals are usually a crash course for Hollywood A-listers. Actors not known for their singing skills are suddenly expected to warble their way through a story. You see Meryl Streep shimmying and strutting to Abba in “Mamma Mia!” and Renee Zellweger hitting the high notes in “Chicago,” Johnny Depp cutting hair and throats while channeling Sondheim in “Sweeney Todd” and Hugh Jackman making us weep as Jean Valjean in “Les Miserables.”
And what of the Broadway superstars who gave the musicals the cachet to warrant the film adaptations? They’re still performing night after night onstage, since their names aren’t recognizable enough to score big box office numbers – much less get proper introductions at the Oscars (ahem, Adele Dazeem).
“Jersey Boys” is an exception. The most recognizable stars in Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the Tony-winning play about the 1960s band the Four Seasons are Christopher Walken and that guy from “The Sopranos” (who upon post-movie Googling turns out to be Steve Schirripa). John Lloyd Young plays Frankie Valli, a role the actor originated on Broadway. He won a Tony for his work, but this is only his second feature film after a 2009 romantic comedy called “Oy Vey! My Son Is Gay!”
Of course, who in Hollywood could possibly mimic Frankie Valli’s formidable falsetto? Just imagine James Franco trying to get through “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” On second thought, don’t. Young might not be a household name, but he can sing and act onstage and on camera. And the rest of the cast is also made up of musical theater talent: Michael Lomenda, who plays the deep-voiced Nick Massi, and Erich Bergen, as singer-songwriter Bob Gaudio, both return to roles they played during the show’s first national tour. The fourth band member, Tommy DeVito, is played by “Boardwalk Empire” regular Vincent Piazza.
The cast list isn’t the only way Eastwood stays true to the original incarnation. Seeing the movie onscreen is a lot like seeing it in a playhouse – and that’s OK. After all, the story is dramatic, with its tale of kids from a rough neighborhood who shoot to fame with catchy hit after catchy hit but can’t quite keep it together. Plus, the dialogue is witty and the music is phenomenal.
There isn’t a lot of fancy camera work or special effects, and the movie even retains the way characters directly addressed the audience in the play. This particular gimmick feels a little unnecessary in the adaptation. Facial expressions, which aren’t always visible for a theater audience, can do a lot of explaining in films: When Bob hears Frankie sing for the first time, for instance, a look of astonishment comes over his face before he turns to the camera and says, “After 30 seconds, I know I need to write for this voice.” But we figured that out already.
The movie, like the play, also overstuffs the plot. Valli suffered a harrowing family tragedy that makes its way into the narrative. Yet with so much attention paid to the band and so little paid to his personal life up until that point, the misfortune feels shoehorned into the story as a way to exhibit the hero hitting rock bottom.
Overall though, fans of the play will be pleased. And for those who love the Four Seasons’ music but haven’t made it to the play, you can put your fear of missing out to rest. This is a much more affordable way to very nearly re-create the experience.