Out & About: Hottest ticket in town: ‘Jersey Boys’

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Two theatrical productions dominate this week’s picks in the performing arts.

The hottest ticket in town is this weekend’s production of “Jersey Boys,” the four-time Tony Award-winning jukebox musical that’s based on the real-life story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. Portland Ovations will host three performances on Friday and Saturday.

Good Theater, the resident thespian troupe at Portland’s St. Lawrence Arts Center, opened its 2017-2018 season last weekend with a splendid production of “Sex With Strangers.”

As we flip the calendar to October, we also approach the end of the season for Vinegar Hill Music Theatre in Arundel. For its penultimate weekend, the most interesting act will be this Friday’s appearance by the Doo Wop Project.

‘Jersey Boys’

Before the Beatles, the most popular American musical act was The Four Seasons, four New Jersey men who had a long string of hits, including “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like A Man.” On stage and television they projected a clean-cut, all-American image, and they were extraordinarily successful from 1960 well into the 1970s.

The lead singer was Frankie Valli, best remembered for his distinctive falsetto voice and phrasing. Principal songwriters were band member Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, who produced their recordings.

In 2004 Gaudio decided to create a jukebox musical about the group. Titled “Jersey Boys,” it debuted on Broadway in 2005. Like the originals, “Jersey Boys” enjoyed extraordinary success, winning four Tony Awards and running for 12 years.

The Broadway run ended this past January, and a national touring company is currently motoring through the U.S., bringing this show to smaller cities. This weekend the tour hits the brakes in Portland for three performances on Friday and Saturday.

The book, by Marshall Brickman and Rick Ellice, contains several surprises, which no doubt contributed to the show’s success. First is the unusual format, with the narration divided into four “seasons,” spring through winter, each told by a different band member. Valli’s version of the story comes last, and non-member Crewe does a retrospective wrap-up.

Second, the band had multiple antecedents, incarnations and prior names. Valli recorded his first hit seven years prior to formation of the group, and Gaudio had been a member of several earlier bands and had written a couple of hit songs for others.

Third, the members were hardly the clean-cut boys of the popular image. Each had a gritty and somewhat unsavory background, and several had served jail time. Their brushes with the law – as well as their connection with a New Jersey mobster – is a continuing theme through the show.

As expected, the show runs through the whole catalogue of million-selling hits, ending with “Rag Doll” in the finale.

“Jersey Boys” has two local connections worth noting. Crewe died three years ago in Scarborough. His brother Dan lives in Cumberland and is a prominent local arts figure. The Bob Crewe Foundation has made many grants to Maine nonprofit organizations.

John Lloyd Young, who debuted the Valli character in the Broadway production – and won the Tony for Best Actor – received his first professional paychecks 19 years ago in Arundel. Fresh out of Brown University’s theater program, Young spent the summer of 1998 at Adrienne Grant’s then-new Arundel Barn Playhouse. (Young also played Valli in the movie version.)

Portland Ovations presents “Jersey Boys” for three performances at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall: Oct. 6 at 8 p.m. and Oct. 7 at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

Doo Wop Project

Another show that’s deeply into the heritage of popular music is the Doo Wop Project, five guys who explore the history of their namesake singing style.

Their show traces the evolution of Doo Wop from the classic sound of five guys singing tight harmonies on a street corner to the biggest hits on the radio. The Doo Wop Project takes audiences on a journey from foundational tunes of groups like the Crests, Belmonts and Flamingos through their influences on the sounds of Smokey Robinson, the Temptations, and The Four Seasons – all the way to Michael Jackson, Jason Mraz and Amy Winehouse.

The five guys are veterans of two hit Broadway shows, “Jersey Boys” and “Motown: The Musical,” thus bringing unparalleled authenticity of sound and vocal excellence to recreate some of the greatest pop music in American history.

Catch the Doo Wop Project at Vinegar Hill Music Theater, 53 Old Post Road (just off Route 1) in Arundel at 8 p.m. Oct. 6. Call 985-5552.

‘Sex With Strangers’

The clash between reality and perception has been an ongoing dramatic theme for many centuries. William Shakespeare’s “King Lear” is one outstanding example that leaps to mind.

One of the most intriguingly distinctive and totally modern ways of exploring this theme can be seen in Good Theater’s current production of Laura Eason’s “Sex With Strangers.”

On its surface, “Sex With Strangers” is a two-person drama employing the traditional man-meets-woman format. Both characters are published authors at the opening curtain, and the plot concerns their struggles with current writing projects – and with each other. One of the many points of tension in Eason’s script is the competition between traditional print publishing and various digital formats and social media.

The two characters are seen on three different planes: What is real, what is perceived by each other and what is perceived via outsiders, chiefly the critics and the vast digital universe of social media. The ongoing conflict between these three points of view provide the dramatic horsepower that drives this show so successfully.

Good Theater co-founder Steve Underwood directs. He gets sterling performances from both actors. Amanda Painter convincingly portrays a slightly mousy, insecure novelist whose first book was a flop and is hesitantly writing a second. Marshall Taylor Thurman brilliantly plays her opposite, a physically imposing, self-confident writer whose wildly successful first book was based on his blog, which is titled “Sex With Strangers.” The blog recounts his many past – and ongoing – one-night stands.

What do these characters need? And how much will they pay to reach their goals? “Sex With Strangers” is a fascinating drama that totally engages the audience.

Good Theater presents “Sex With Strangers” at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St. (top of Munjoy Hill) in Portland through Oct. 22 with 7 p.m. performances Wednesdays and Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Fridays, 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Call 835-0895.

“Jersey Boys,” the four-time Tony Award-winning jukebox musical based on the real-life story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, will play three times this weekend. It’s the first offering of Portland Ovations’ 2017-2018 season in Merrill Auditorium.