Sunday, January 21, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Jersey Boys' singers bring more doo-wop to Ruth Eckerd

One of the most exhilarating musical theater experiences in recent years was Jersey Boys, the Broadway show that chronicles the rise of the Four Seasons, the doo-wop group that featured the amazing falsetto of Frankie Valli. To hear golden oldies like Let's Hang On, Working My Way Back to You and Sherry, artfully reimagined for the theater, was a tremendous kick.

Now four of the actors who were in the original production of the show are on tour, performing Four Seasons songs and others from the 1960s as the Midtown Men, and they also have released a fine self-produced CD, Sixties Hits. The quartet, with a seven-piece band, performs March 30 at Ruth Eckerd Hall.

Jersey Boys was the initial hook, and it continues to be a help to us because people want to see the guys from Jersey Boys," says Christian Hoff, who won a Tony Award for his portrayal of bad boy Tommy DeVito, the Four Seasons' baritone and lead guitarist.

Two other members of the Midtown Men also originated roles in the musical, which opened on Broadway in 2005. Daniel Reichard played songwriter Bob Gaudio, and J. Robert Spencer played Nick Massi, the group's bassist. Michael Longoria was in the original cast in the smaller role of Joe Pesci (yep, that Joe Pesci, who was a friend of the Seasons) and later played Frankie Valli.

But the Midtown Men — initially called the Boys in Concert — almost never happened, because in 2010 the real-life Valli and Gaudio, along with the musical's book writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, filed a lawsuit in federal court that attempted to stop the show.

"What they were concerned about was that they didn't want us to say we were in Jersey Boys, and they assumed we were going to create a sort of Jersey Boys lite or a Beatlemania version of Jersey Boys," Hoff says. "They were afraid we were going to go out there and eclipse them somehow or steal their thunder. That was never our intent and it's nothing we ever did."

Dealing with the lawsuit by the Jersey Boys creators, which drew a counterclaim by Hoff and company, was traumatic.

"We had been a team," Hoff says. "It was an interesting experience to be carried on the shoulders of our producers and Valli and Gaudio one year and then the next year to have your father figures try to put you down. We took a stand not only for ourselves but for performers everywhere to have the ability to sing other people's music. That's what the Four Seasons did in the beginning, singing music of Etta James and Frank Sinatra."

Director Des McAnuff was not involved in the suit. "Des never had a problem," according to Hoff. "He said, 'You guys, do your thing.' He knew we wanted to create something independent from Jersey Boys. He wasn't territorial about it all. But with Valli and Gaudio, it's a family thing, and it is very territorial."

In the end, the case was settled out of court. The name change from the Boys in Concert to the Midtown Men was made, and a disclaimer of any affiliation with Jersey Boys appears on the group's Web site and album. Still, the connection with the musical remains obvious.

"They couldn't limit our saying we were in Jersey Boys, because we were," Hoff says. "Once they realized they didn't have a leg to stand on, we were then free to go about our business."

Hoff sees the group's name, derived from the Broadway theater district in Midtown Manhattan, as emblematic of its struggle to gain the right to perform the show. "We connect with the grittiness of Midtown as struggling actors, as guys who hit the pavement every day to find the next job," he says. "We had to man up to do this. It was a rite of passage."

As in Jersey Boys, the Midtown Men wear stylish suits (from Hugo Boss), have cool dance moves and trade show-biz banter. Along with Four Seasons songs, the show (and album) includes a well-chosen selection of other '60s classics, such as the Beatles' Can't Buy Me Love, the Turtles' Happy Together and the Zombies' Time of the Season. They have a packed schedule that encompassed, when I interviewed Hoff by phone from San Diego this month, six shows in five states in seven days.

The album has plenty of Seasons covers, with a version of Candy Girl that is especially evocative. What is it about these songs that is so potent?

"It's that the songs are from a personal perspective," Hoff says. "Any time you write a song from that personal perspective it allows the listener to be included. Unrequited love. Class structure — coming from the wrong side of the tracks. You understand what it's like to lose a girl, to not be good enough. Then you add these great hooks. They are songs that four guys can wear their hearts on their sleeves and sing from their guts."

At 78, Valli continues to perform, and he had a sold-out show at Ruth Eckerd in February. "There are times when we cross paths with him and the Jersey Boys tour," Hoff says. "We think it's a complement to one another. They're so different, but there's a great appetite for the songs. Our connection to Frankie as a mentor and father figure was fantastic. We loved that affiliation. But we're also very proud of creating something independent at the same time."

The Midtown Men concert is at 8 p.m. March 30 at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $35, $45.

Opera on screen

The Muvico multiplex at Baywalk in downtown St. Petersburg is climbing onto the opera-at-the-movies bandwagon. An Opera Australia staging of Puccini's Madama Butterfly is screening there at 7 p.m. Wednesday and 2 p.m. April 7. Tickets are $12. If these showings draw a crowd, there is a possibility the theater may consider carrying the Metropolitan Opera simulcasts next season.

John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.

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