It's hard to top my first "Jersey Boys" experience. I eavesdropped on Frankie Valli during intermission.
The scene: opening night in 2006 of the national tour of the Broadway musical in San Francisco. It isn't polite to eavesdrop, of course. But when you're standing in the aisle of a packed theater and Valli has decided to park right in front of you to discuss with his compatriots what he thinks so far of the show, I wasn't going to stick cotton in my ears.
He loved the production, of course.
I liked it, too — quite a bit more than the Clint Eastwood-directed movie that opened Friday.
I'm first in line for every film adaptation of a Broadway musical. I've seen enough of them to realize that it can be tricky to transfer the experience of live theater to the big screen. The film version of "Jersey Boys" just didn't do much for me, alas.
I didn't hate it — but I have no interest in seeing it again. For me to say that about a Broadway film adaptation is a pretty lukewarm response.
The stage version is first and foremost a "jukebox musical" — an excuse to string together a bunch of crowd-pleasing hits. Still, book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice worked hard to find a compelling narrative in this story of a group of New Jersey toughs breaking out of the neighborhood into stardom.
Did they try a little too hard? Perhaps.
There is a lot of supposed grit in the storyline of the stage musical, including time spent in jail by members of the band for petty crimes and connections to the Mafia. But there's also too much of an effort to wring drama out of a story that isn't always that special. (Is there anything more ordinary than members of rock bands arguing with each other?)
Balancing the exaggerated angst, though, are the songs. Such tunes as "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man" and "Big Girls Don't Cry" infuse the stage version with a powerfully jaunty swagger. Aside from my brush with Valli and Four Seasons fame in San Francisco, what I remember most from that night in San Francisco was the exuberance and musical magnetism of the show.
The joyful, seamless integration of music and storyline made up for any deficiencies in the plot.
The film version, on the other hand, comes across as a mostly competent but standard-issue biopic. I don't consider it a "musical" as such, but more a movie with music. (It's a musical for people who don't like musicals.) The first hour, especially, is something of a slog. We get bogged down in garden-variety dysfunction.
The songs are fine — and a few are thoroughly entertaining — but something feels static and detached about the way they're placed into the narrative.
(One song just feels downright creepy: when Frankie, played by John Lloyd Young, sings "My Eyes Adored You" as a lullaby to his daughter. How tone-deaf did Eastwood have to be to let that go through, especially with the line "Though I never laid a hand on you"?)
The only time I fully warmed up to the movie version of "Jersey Boys," in fact, is when the final credits roll. That's when Eastwood shifts from methodical realism to a little Broadway razzle-dazzle, with all of his actors getting the chance to sing and dance a little.
What's missing from the movie overall? The magic of theater.
I think I'll stick with Frankie Valli in person. And "Jersey Boys" on stage.