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Thursday, March 08, 2012

Backstage with the Jersey Boys

Schenectady's Jersey Boys
interviewed by Albany's YNN.
BEING FRANKIE VALLI is a full-time job. Ask actor Brad Weinstock. “It’s unlike anything that I’ve ever done theatrically,” he says. “It’s definitely the most challenging.” Weinstock is one of the core quartet in “Jersey Boys,” now playing at Proctors in Schenectady. Once every performance day he progresses from warbling “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” to powerhouse renditions of “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man” and the many other Four Seasons hits, in a dead-on version of Valli’s signature style.

In order to maintain it, he explains, “I’ve become a very regimented person. I drink a gallon of water a day, I sleep with a humidifier, I steam with a personal inhaler, I have lots of electrolytes. And I sleep probably ten hours a night, because if you lose sleep or are dehydrated, the falsetto is the first thing to go.”

Weinstock and his fellow cast-members were fêted yesterday at the annual spring get-together of the Proctors Guild. Actors who spend time on the road will tell you that a touring company becomes a family; here the dynamic was obvious.

There’s also a physical quality about an actor that goes beyond the merely structural. Actors are comfortable as attention-centers, and stand or sit with an unselfconscious ease that nevertheless says, “I know you’re looking at me.” Even when off script, they tend to express themselves well. It’s very easy to believe, within a few minutes of falling into conversation with an actor, that you’ve become this person’s best friend – and you walk away from the encounter unaware that you did little of the talking.

All of which is helped by be the cast’s genuine pleasure at being in Schenectady. “We’re going next to Kalamazoo for two weeks,” says Tom Fiscella, who plays gangster Gyp DeCarlo and several other characters. “Then we spend four weeks in Rochester. I wish we had four weeks here. The theater and the hospitality here are great. We had a birthday gathering last night, and Ambition Café said, sure, we’ll stay open late for you.”

They even play together, Fiscella notes. “For some reason, we’ve all gravitated to bowling. It comes right out of the show, from one of my characters at the bowling alley from which the Four Seasons took their name. ‘Ahh, you guys get outta here, you’re just felons,’ he says.”

Last Thursday’s opening night was this tour’s 100th performance, and there’s no let-up in sight. After Rochester come Kansas City, Atlanta, Dallas, and Denver, with still more bookings down the road.

“Jersey Boys” opened on Broadway in 2005 to raves and Tonys. The score features the Frankie Valli songs you loved best as well as a bounty of songs that influenced him – all delivered in a practically non-stop, hard-driving score.

“The story holds the mirror up kind of brutally to Valli’s life,” says Weinstock, “with both the positive and the negative. But, that being said, he’s been behind this approach to the show from the start for the benefit of telling an interesting story, not just a squeaky-clean kind of thing.”

Valli remains very much on the music scene (he’ll be performing at Proctors on May 10), and, in an ironically recursive touch, even used the original “Jersey Boys” quartet as backup singers on a recent recording.

And you don’t always know where he’ll appear next. “The four of us were in a room in Manhattan rehearsing,” says Weinstock, “facing out the windows, all singing ‘Dawn,’ when there was this kind of rustling from the other people there – and I turned and Frankie Valli was standing in front of me. He was really gracious and sweet. He’s promised to come check us out some time in the next few months.”

Part of the songwriting team that gave the group its distinctive sound back in the ’60s was Bob Gaudio, who also spent time as part of the quartet. He’s portrayed by Jason Kappus, who has had his own experience of Life walking into Art. “Gaudio has spent a lot of time on this show, too,” says Kappus. “For me, it was particularly disconcerting during auditions, because you’d be there reciting these monologues describing the guy who’s sitting over there at the table, watching me. But during rehearsals, he was there with inside tips and was very encouraging. But it’s still very surreal. Not many shows let you meet with and get advice from the person you’re playing.”

Aspects of northern New Jersey’s Italian culture inform the characters’ attitudes, but you don’t need a sociologist to tell you that those attitudes can be learned without being inherited. Take Colby Foytik, who plays the thuggish but influential Tommy DeVito, who was in at the band’s beginning. “I’m from Southern California,” he explains. “There’s not a single thing about me that’s New Jersey or Italian.” Foytik at first didn’t think acting was going to be a career. “I was involved in music. But I don’t consider going on stage every night as a job. The job in this business is auditioning, finding the gig. I’ve wanted to play the role of Tommy since this show opened.”

Replicating the original Four Seasons requires a bass-voiced bass player who is otherwise quiet and believably eccentric. Brandon Andrus, who plays Nick Massi, confesses that he doesn’t even actually play bass. “So I learned to fake it. And I learned to get my voice (he demonstrates) down here. I actually play trumpet.” Andrus at first seems to share Nick’s taciturnity, but warms to the subject of theater. As a trumpet player, he notes, “I’d love to do the show ‘Side Man’ some day.” (That’s Warren Leight’s Tony Award-winning portrait of a self-destructive jazz trumpeter.) “I’d like to write a show about Chet Baker.” Andrus has the looks to portray the hip, tragic jazzman, “but not for me to perform – I’d like to write and direct it. And I haven’t played Billy Bigelow in ‘Carousel’ yet.”

Fiscella counts Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ as a dream role, but it’s one that he’s played. “I’d love to play it again. I’d love to play it for years. And, in a pretty big change of pace, I’d like to play Sweeney Todd.” His versatility is obvious as he goes from mobster to record executive to priest to many others in the course of the show – and you’ll spot him in the ensemble at the end, guitar in hand, singing his heart out.

“That’s a moment when director Des McAnuff told us to just be ourselves. ‘You’ve been all these different characters up until now,’ he said. ‘This is a time to find something in yourself to put into it.’ It was a great piece of direction.”

The cast shares this admiration for their director. Says Weinstock, “He told us that 90 percent of his job is casting. They start by choosing someone who’s in the ballpark, then let the actor work from there. He said, ‘Stand on the shoulders of the people came before you.’ So I’m doing something akin to but completely different from John Lloyd Young, who won the Tony – but we’re all working in the same world, so you take and enhance what you like and then do your own thing as well.”

Counting the cast and the band and the backstage crew, over 40 people travel with the production. “It really is an ensemble show,” says Foytik. “Sure, the four of us get the glory, but we’ve got all these others who make it work, including the three girls who play 52 different characters just among themselves. It’s incredible.”

Says Andrus, “The real show is backstage. It’s kind of amazing – there’s so much going on.” To which Kappus adds, “It’s just as choreographed backstage as it is onstage.”

Because the signature quartet sound is the core of this show, rehearsals began small. “The four of us got a week right at the beginning of rehearsals,” Kappus explains. “It was just the four of us in a room learning how to become our version of this band. We’d get together in a circle and sing in each other’s faces. Now that we’re onstage, we’re rarely in that tight clump again. We’re singing on our own out to the audience, and we can’t hear each other.”

“We’re still listening to each other,” Andrus puts in. “I’m always listening to you guys. That’s why I love being here at Proctors – the acoustics are so great.” The others nod in agreement.

“Schenectady has been really responsive and intelligent,” Weinstock observes. “We just came from Ohio, where they were more conservative about the swearing, but there’s a lot of Ohio humor in the show – like when the four of us go to jail in Ohio. That went over gangbusters. That kind of thing keeps it fun each night, seeing what the audience responds to.” And he’s enough of a road veteran to conclude, “It’s different in every city.”

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Jason Kappas moves and dances with the easy grace of Christopher walken in his vidoes and moveies