Before “Jersey Boys” in 2005, the buzzword on Broadway was “jukebox musicals” — putting an artist’s work into a show that had little to nothing to do with the performers themselves.
But the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons “sort of redefined how you can do a musical jukebox,” said Darren Lee, who is director-choreographer for Music Theater Wichita’s take on “Jersey Boys,” opening later this week at the Capitol Federal Amphitheater in Andover.
“It’s been emulated so much through the years with ‘Summer’ and ‘Tina,’ (stage bios of Donna Summer and Tina Turner), trying to tell the life of these people with their actual music, and in this case, it actually works in an organic and cohesive way,” Lee added. “It doesn’t feel shoehorned like a lot of these other shows sometimes do.”
The trend continued, Music Theater Wichita cast members said, with “Beautiful,” the life and music of Carole King, and “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” an ode to the Temptations.
“Jersey Boys” won four Tony Awards in 2006, including best musical, lead and featured actor and lighting. It ran on Broadway until 2017, when it moved to off-Broadway to a slightly adjusted performance that is scheduled to close on May 22, the same night that MTW’s concludes its run.
The rights for “Jersey Boys” were recently made available, MTW artistic director Brian J. Marcum said, and were distributed sparingly to regional theater companies.
“They weren’t giving them to many people. They were nice to give it to us,” Marcum said, adding he received an email from the publisher last week saying, “There are many theaters jealous of you at the moment.”
“Jersey Boys” is the only Music Theater Wichita performance this season scheduled to be performed at the Andover amphitheater. The venue served as one of the homes for MTW last year, when COVID kept audiences from gathering closely in the Century II concert hall.
The lodge at the amphitheater, which served as dressing rooms for the cast and a VIP receiving area, was damaged in the April 29 tornado that tore through Andover. Temporary facilities will serve as the dressing rooms, Marcum said.
“We are doing this like we’ve pivoted for the past few years, finding a way to make it work,” he said.
Lee, who previously was choreographer for MTW’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Thoroughly Modern Millie” and “Miss Saigon,” said the large video screens at the amphitheater posed an interesting challenge in the telling story.
Video was used in the Broadway show, but mostly as a backdrop.
“We had to find a vocabulary to make it work so it was exciting when you go to those moments when they actually do perform on camera,” Lee said. “We got the idea to kind of overlay over the live feed, so it’s like what audiences are used to now from seeing Instagram or Facebook, so you can put on screen the location and time period. It feels like a shift, even though you’re seeing the technology.”
Marcum said the stage configuration at the amphitheater lent itself better to “concert-esque-ish” productions such as “Jersey Boys.”
Several of the cast members — Joshua Charles Skurnik, who plays Valli; Sam Wolf, who plays Tommy Devito; Andy Christopher, who plays Bob Gaudio — have played the roles in other professional companies and on cruise lines.
“There’s a second layer of appeal that comes with the show after you’ve been in the show,” Christopher said. “There is this very unique experience that’s shared with any of the guys who’ve carried this vehicle for 2 ½ hours. We all worship this music … It’s unlike anything else in show business. That’s what makes doing this show so unbelievably special.”
“It sheds light on the American experience in a way that we’re unaccustomed to,” said Mark Banik, who plays Nick Massi. “It’s your American underdog story, starting from the bottom and going to the top and all of the things that happen along the way. … It’s truly a special experience.”
Skurnik, a New York-based performer, was sidelined with COVID the day before he was to fly to Wichita and was scheduled to leave for rehearsals last Monday. (Marcum said that the performers rehearse with masks and regularly take COVID tests.) Skurnik is a veteran of a Norwegian Cruise lines production of the show, as well as playing Joe Pesci (the Oscar-winning actor whose life figures into the story) on Broadway and understudying for the Valli role once a week.
“I’ve wanted to play Frankie probably from the time I was 13 years old, when I first saw it on Broadway,” he said via a Zoom interview. “I listened to the cast recording almost every single day, practicing.”
The supporting cast includes Wichita actresses Chelsey Ehresman and Gabbe Meloccaro, who play several roles.
All of the performers had a familiarity with the Four Seasons music before “Jersey Boys.” The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame group had hits such as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Let’s Hang On” and “Who Loves You.”
“A lot of people know the music but didn’t know the story of the group,” associate director/choreographer John Michael Coppola said. “This is a history lesson. You learn so much, the good, the bad and the ugly about the forming of the group. He did really lay the groundwork for the bio musical.”
When: 7:30 pm Wednesday-Thursday, May 18-19; 8 pm Friday, May 20; 2 and 8 pm Saturday, May 21; 2 and 7 pm Sunday, May 22
Where: Capitol Federal Amphitheater, Andover
Tickets: $25-$72 (bring your own lawn chairs), at mtwichita.org or 265-3107