The Hearts behind the Harmony

Posted by on Apr 10th, 2013 and filed under Featured, Shows. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Front row left to right: Deven May, Rob Marnell, Jeff Leibow. Back row left to right: Travis Cloer, Graham Fenton. Photo by Christopher DeVargas

They may be the best band in town today, but they’re billed as a group from decades past.

If you’ve seen them live, you might think there are only four members – but there are five.

They’ve played eight shows a week together for more than a year, but they don’t have a name of their own.

You might call them by the title of their show – but they’re more than a tribute to the Four Seasons and more than the main characters in a musical.

At some point – it’s hard to say when – Travis Cloer, Graham Fenton, Deven May, Jeff Leibow and Rob Marnell became the Jersey Boys: a musical group in itself and the driving force behind one of the great shows in Las Vegas.

***

My interview with the Jersey Boys is wrapping up when Deven, who plays Four Seasons founder Tommy DeVito, tells me not to pay attention to the voices at the door.

“Those aren’t monkeys,” he says. “Those are our dressers.”

“Speak for yourself,” jokes Rob, who, even in street clothes, seems like a lot like Bob Gaudio. “I have one monkey dresser. It is amazing.”

This kind of silliness is a little different than the combative camaraderie you see on stage, but the guys still lob dialogue around like they’re cutting up on the corner under a street light.

“Not only does it dress him but it preens him and gives him a banana,” Deven says.

“‘I’m tired of eating hairspray!’” (Rob gives the monkey a voice … )

“‘Deal with it, Cedric!’ (… and then answers himself.)

One of the show’s staff members reminds the boys that they have a sound check to get to, but Graham, who is playing Frankie Valli tonight, objects.

“This is groundbreaking monkey news!” he says.

The jokes have a different tone than those they make on stage, but the characters are all familiar. Before the interview became about monkey news, Deven told me that the five guys who play the Four Seasons all trust each other immensely.

“You have to,” he said. He pointed to some stage combat sequences to explain why trust is so important for the cast, but Jeff Leibow (who portrays Four Seasons founding member Nick Massi) had another reason.

“We have to play four guys in a band trying to get off the streets of Newark for years,” he said. “Tommy and Nick sang together for 12 years before Bob Gaudio ever came along. They’ve got to know each other. They’ve got to be familiar with each other. And we’ve got to be friendly, and the chemistry off-stage makes that possible.”

Did you see how Jeff switched from talking about “they” (the Four Seasons) to talking about himself and his fellow cast members? (“We’ve got to be friendly…”) That’s how the whole interview went – with the guys weaving in and out of their roles as though the green room were part of the stage or as though the stage were part of their kitchen and we were all sitting around the table talking about the show.

Travis, who splits the role of Frankie Valli with Graham, recalls a night when Deven hit Rob in the stomach on stage.

Bob Gaudio (Rob Marnell, left) and Frankie Valli (Travis Cloer) agree to a partnership.

“I feel like the younger brother in those moments,” Rob says.

Did he mean he feels like the youngest of the five actors (which he is) or that he identifies with his character, Bob Gaudio, who is the youngest member of the Four Seasons and comes of age during the show as a musician and as a man? It’s not clear which he intends, but both apply.

The line between performance and real life is just as blurry with all the actors. Apart from a few convincing, but fake, Jersey accents, Deven, Rob, Jeff, Graham and Travis seem a lot like Tommy, Bob, Nick and Frankie.

Deven, like Tommy DeVito, is a businessman. He’s not in debt to the mob like his character is, but he is starting a business. Like DeVito, Deven is a wise-cracker. He likes to jab at his co-stars, and he never passes up a chance to make a joke.

“Caesars [Entertainment] has been fantastic with us … giving us a lot of things we want and desire,” Deven tells me. “Like diamond cars.”

The quartet sings backup for other artists while the members anticipate their big break.

DeVito narrates the first act of the show, which chronicles the group’s beginnings — before its first hit and before it’s named the Four Seasons. When DeVito tells the audience that it was he who plucked Frankie Valli off the street and made him a star, he sounds just like Deven mocking Graham’s (invented) ineptitude on the trumpet. When DeVito arranges for Gaudio to “become a man,” that’s a little of Deven shining through, too. Backstage, he teases Rob about his “rock-hard abs.”

But when I turn to Deven with a question, I can see him mentally flip a switch before he utters a polished sound bite perfect for press – something about how sales for Jersey Boys have gone up a boatload in just a few months — just like Tommy would have done as the Four Seasons’ de facto manager.

Rob plays Bob Gaudio without a Jersey accent, so he sounds the same on-stage and off. Rob has written songs since he was a boy, and he says that playing Gaudio, the Four Seasons’ songwriter and composer, has inspired him to take his hobby more seriously.

When we meet Bob in the show, he’s a “young, young man,” and he’s has already written and toured with a hit (“Short Shorts”). Like his character, Rob is the wholesome kid with a whole lot of talent. He’s comparably new to showbiz, and he’s almost visibly amazed at being a star. He tells me about his character, but it sounds like he’s talking about himself.

“When [Gaudio] arrives, it’s shortly thereafter that they start hitting it big,” Rob says, “and it’s just fun to go on that ride every night.”

Just like Gaudio joined DeVito, Massi and Valli as the final member of the quartet, Rob joined Deven, Jeff, Travis and Graham before the show moved to the Paris Las Vegas. It’s clear that Rob is still in love with the experience.

“You really do … feel like a rock star,” he says. He gives the example of a spot in the show where Jeff waves to the audience and usually elicits an eruption of applause.

Deven recalls the moment, too. He tries to explain how Jeff plays the room with the gesture, but he calls his co-star Nick. Deven doesn’t seem to mean it in the artsy sense (as though Jeff “becomes” Nick Massi for an hour and a half) because he’s making a joke about bad audiences — which an actor would see but a character would not. Again, it’s more like Jeff and Nick are the same guy on-stage and off.

The biggest laugh Nick gets in the show comes after a line in which he compares himself to Ringo Starr, the least-remembered member of The Beatles.

In the green room, Travis and Graham explain that they trade off shows throughout the week because the role of Frankie is so vocally demanding that they need more rest than the other actors.

“We try not to rub it in,” Graham says, referring to their extra free time.

“They don’t do a very good job,” says Deven.

“We sing more than you do every night,” Travis defends.

“We’re right there behind you backing you up,” Deven says with feigned emotion, “and you never turn around and look at us.”

Then Jeff says, “Just call me Ringo.”

It may be a reference to his line in the play, but it’s also more than that. He’s obviously beloved by the other four, but Jeff’s life a little different from his companions’ lives.

Jeff played oboe in high school and was in the marching band. He was in musicals in college but sold computers and worked at NASA for a while before returning to the theater.

“Theater never left my life,” he says, “so the transition back to theater was less of a surprise than out of it.”

Massi’s transition out of the Four Seasons was a surprise, too. He tells the audience in the final act that he quit the group almost before he knew why he was doing it. But he says that it seemed like a good idea once he realized the decision meant he could spend more time with his family.

Jeff is a family man, too, and he and his wife founded the NF Hope Foundation to help neurofibromatosis charity organizations. They are inspired by the daughter, who was born with the condition. If Jeff ever leaves the stage, he says he might like to produce charity events for NF Hope full-time.

Still, just like Massi returns to the stage at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in the final act of Jersey Boys, Jeff is likely to keep coming back to the theater.

“If it’s something you love, it’s hard to leave,” he says.

The twilight between actor and character gets murkiest with Graham and Travis. In all other incarnations of Jersey Boys, one actor plays Frankie six shows a week and another fills in for two, but in Las Vegas, the part is split evenly. That’s due in part to the demands of singing in the dry Nevada air, but it’s also so fitting it’s almost metaphoric.

Both actors were part of the original Broadway production of Jersey Boys and both bring the house down each night they perform, but beyond the lights – especially in their ancillary music careers – they have come to embody the two phases of Valli’s life in the play.

When DeVito discovered Frankie Valli (then Frankie Castoluccio), Frankie was training to become a barber. When A Million Pieces guitarist Peter Vanderloos discovered Graham Fenton, Graham was working as a singing waiter in Miceli’s restaurant in Studio City.

“I was singing “Build Me Up, Buttercup” and clocking whether my pizza was ready for my table,” Graham said.

Graham Fenton (left) with his band A Million Pieces

Graham is now the lead singer for A Million Pieces. The dance rock quartet is working hard to get radio play for its new single “Take It or Leave It.” Similar to early tunes by the Four Lovers (That’s what Tommy called the quartet before it became the Four Seasons.) A Million Pieces’ music is good. Really good. But the group is still putting in the grunt work of knocking on doors.

“It just started getting some play in Billings, Mont. — the hotbed of the music scene,” Graham said.

The parallels between Graham and the young Valli of Jersey Boys’ first two acts falter when you consider that the former is a classically trained singer with a ton of experience. But next to his fellow Frankie, Graham is eager, energetic and full of all the youthful passion that allows him to sing the early hit “Sherry” so convincingly each night he takes the stage.

Travis Cloer's solo album features jazz standards. He performed selections from the work last month at The Smith Center's Cabaret Jazz.

Travis, by comparison, exudes experience. On the side he’s a jazz singer, not a rock artist, and he’s enjoying a little of the joys of being an established Las Vegas favorite. He hasn’t taken on hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt like Valli does for DeVito in the third act, and he hasn’t suffered all the tragedies that Valli does later in the play, but Travis is visibly mature.

Valli’s go-go-go approach to his career eventually fractures his family. Travis has had to learn to slow down, too. After he hemorrhaged a vocal chord in a show last year, he changed a lot about the way he sings.

“You think you’re superman and you try to muscle through something,” he said, “and your body says, “No, dude. I said shut up.”

Maybe the perspective he has gained from the challenges of playing Frankie contribute to Travis’ heart-wrenching performance of “Fallen Angel” in act three.

Travis has, like Valli in the second half of the play, taken on a solo career. He sang in December with the Las Vegas Philharmonic, and last month he performed at The Smith Center’s Cabaret Jazz. His solo album of jazz classics is called “Setting the Standard.”

Travis is charming and fun-loving, and he can be as exuberant as Valli, but once the lights go down, he seems most like the star of acts three and four.

Back in the green room, the guys are joking again about stage combat. Deven is giving Rob a hard time for the way he told me about being beat up in the show.

“Tonight I’m barely gonna touch him,” Deven says.

It’s normal for performers to talk through their act off-stage, but the Jersey Boys constantly move back and forth between professional development and the easy banter of close friends.

The guys tell me that Travis is good at rewriting music to make each show work.

Halfway between mocking and admiration, Graham says his favorite rewrite is when Travis sings an arpeggio up to the top notes in the second verse of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” instead of shooting straight up to the pitch. The two diverge into a conversation about how the change can help them get through the super-demanding last act.

“‘Oh pretty baby’ instead of ‘Oh! Pretty! Baby!’” Graham sings.

Travis confirms: “Yeah. ‘Oh pretty baby.’”

“We’ve got to call Gaudio. ‘We’ve got this alternate melody … I think it’s time to revisit this.’” Graham jokes as though he and the cast are part of a writing process that took place decades ago.

That is exactly why Jersey Boys has been a thrill every night for more than 2,000 shows. The songs still make the singers want to sing. And the characters portrayed are really alive in the five friends who make it happen.

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