Breaking Records or Broken Records?

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

Why is it that Americans get so nostalgic about so many things they weren't so crazy about the first time around? Whatever the reason, this phenomenon has been a boon to theatrical producers over the course of the past decade. No longer simply the territory of AM radio and VH1 specials, nostalgia is big business on Broadway and in Southern California theaters.

The musical Jersey Boys is a perfect example. This past week, Jersey Boys sold out 100% percent of its shows on Broadway—despite the fact that its been running for over a year and a half. This summer, the touring production is here in Los Angeles where it's broken a number of the Ahmanson's box office records.

All this for a musical without a single new song about pop group whose last top-40 hit was over 30 years ago. Jersey Boys tells the story of how four guys from the Garden State became The Four Seasons, one of the biggest American pop act of the early 1960's.

The musical employs the Rashomon technique of having the different band members recount their version of story—usually directly to the audience. This gives the show a documentary style, that when punctuated by musical numbers, starts to resemble Behind the Music: Live! Because of this, there are times when it becomes clear that the main creative motivation of Jersey Boys was simply to drum up CD sales of old Four Seasons recordings.

Even if that is all Jersey Boys amounts to, it's admittedly a pretty entertaining and effective advertisement, especially for lead singer Frankie Valli and keyboard player/songwriter Bob Gaudio. Both men come off as likeable, talented artists—in the LA show, Gaudio almost steals the show thanks to actor Erich Bergen. In the Broadway production, John Lloyd Young continues to shine in his Tony winning performance as Valli, whereas here at the Ahmanson, Christopher Kale Jones never quite feels comfortable approximating Valli's signature falsetto sounds.

But why is the show such a smash success? Yes, the Four Seasons sold a truckload of records...40 years ago; but jukebox musicals featuring the tunes of more beloved acts like Elvis, The Beach Boys, and Johnny Cash have been major flops. The reason is director Des McAnuff and writer Marshall Brickman. McAnuff's staging is direct, accessible and fast moving. His video screens and metal sets are entirely unmemorable, but they keep things moving—and what's more, it's one of the few productions that actually feels properly sized for the huge Ahmanson space. Then there's the book. Written by the man who co-wrote Woody Allen's two best films, Annie Hall and Manhattan, Brickman has taken the clichés of the musical bio-pic and tweaked them with just the right touch. Rarely sentimental and judicious with irony, his book for Jersey Boys never tries to cross the river towards art; instead it simply cruises familiar territory with unpretentious style.

Riding this same nostalgia wave, albeit with less grace, is another hit jukebox musical which could be called Jersey Girls. The show is actually titled The Marvelous Wonderettes and it opened in the valley nine months ago and just won't go away—although there's talk that it may go to New York. Like the Jersey Boys, the Wonderette ladies form a quartet...but they're a fictional group. The show's flimsy comedic plot involves the gals bickering at their 1958 prom and then reuniting for more bickering—and of course hugs—at the 10-year reunion.

It's all basically an excuse for broad 50's kitch: big hair, cootie-catcher jokes and golden oldies like "It's My Party" and "Leader of the Pack." The four actresses playing the Wonderettes are fine singers, especially Kim Huber as Missy, but the fact that LA audiences are willing to pay more to listen to these covers than to simply buy a bargain tear-jerkers album and hear the original bands is very confusing. I guess nostalgia just ain't what it used to be.

The Marvelous Wonderettes runs through July 29 at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood; Jersey Boys continues at the Ahmanson through August 31.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.