You never know which Jersey Boy is going to be which at the 5th Avenue

Professional shows have understudies, sometimes great ones, and that's how we got Shirley MacLaine. But they're making a practice of it with the run of the Tony-winning Jersey Boys road production.
Professional shows have understudies, sometimes great ones, and that's how we got Shirley MacLaine. But they're making a practice of it with the run of the Tony-winning Jersey Boys road production.

Here's an interesting theatrical question: How many principal cast members of a show have to be missing before you step up to the box office and ask for your money back? Or asked another way, at what point does a theater have an obligation to inform you of major cast substitutions and give you the option to get a refund? At last night's Jersey Boys at the Fifth Avenue Theatre, some audience members were not particularly pleased to discover, after they were seated, that half of the first-string Boys were not appearing. Appearing instead were five little slips of paper in some programs that said: "The role of Frankie Valli will be played by Taylor Sternberg;" "The role of Bob Gaudio will be played by Miles Aubrey;" "The roles usually played by Jonathan Hadley will be played by Christopher Deangelelis;" "The roles usually played by Miles Aubrey will be played by Erik Bates;" and "The roles of Hank and others are being played by Matt Bailey." Those disappointed last night were probably not there to see Eric Gutman in his transcendent appearance as "Hank." This isn't like going to An Evening With Kevin Kline and learning that "At tonight's performance, the role of Kevin Kline will be played by Mario Lopez." But still, if one paid $75 or more for a ticket based on Misha Berson's rave review in the 12/09 Seattle Times, one might feel, as they say in Jersey, screwed. Ms. Berson wrote how Frankie was "â'ꂬ¦played impressivelyâ'ꂬ¦by Christopher Kale Jonesâ'ꂬ¦" She wrote a later piece explaining that Frankie is so vocally taxing (27 songs in that impossible falsetto, something the real Frankie Valli never had to do) that Mr. Jones can't perform every show and has three understudies. But as one audience member suggested, if the understudy was as good as Mr. Jones, he wouldn't be the understudy, or he'd be playing the part in one of the other Jersey Boys companies around the world. And where was the other Guy? Apparently ill, which is probably why there was all the shuffling around of other roles. The Fifth Avenue Theatre program says "Understudies never substitute for listed performers unless a specific announcement is made at the time of the performance." There was no such announcement last night. Assuming Jersey Boys is being presented under the National Production contract, Actor's Equity rules give a show's producing company (and they make the decision, not the Fifth Avenue) the option of such an announcement prior to curtain, or printed slips in the programs announcing the changes. (Increasingly, according to David Armstrong, the Fifth's Producing Artistic Director, companies are opting for the slips, in part so the poor unknown actor replacing a lead doesn't have to endure a huge audience groan right before he goes on.) But Equity rules also require that if the producer chooses the slips, "â'ꂬ¦such announcement shall be posted conspicuously, prominently and in an unobstructed manner at the entrance to the theatre at the place where tickets of admission are collected. Such announcement shall be at least eight by 10 inches in size with the name of the part and the Actor in letters of at least one inch"–in other words, big and outside, BEFORE you enter the theater. That also didn't happen last night at the Fifth Avenue, or there were certainly some patrons who would have asked for their money back. (This morning David Armstrong told me he thought the sign was there, and if Equity says it's supposed to be, he'll make sure it is from now on.) I don't think the Fifth is trying to hoodwink the public on this one, although it is unsettling that how a theater's patrons are informed of significant cast changes isn't controlled by the theater itself but by the touring company producers. Those producers move on to the next town, leaving the locals with at least some patrons who think they've been misled. The problem here may be one of perception. David Armstrong says Jersey Boys is an ensemble show requiring eight very talented people at the core of a company of 25. And because the producing company is very good at what they do, they've hired a lot of good people for their various companies; a good group of Frankies, Guys, etc. And because of that talent pool, not seeing the Frankie listed in the program, or reviewed on opening night, has little or no effect on any specific performance. My friend who went last night responds that Frankie is the role that won a Tony and is the center of the show, especially in the second act, which means this isn't precisely an ensemble show because there's a star turn in it. And though it was not Christopher Kale Jones who won the Tony for playing it on Broadway, there has to be a reason he's the promoted Frankie who's listed as the first person playing it here. If for understandable reasons he can't perform it every night, she suggests the producers and presenters do what they do in opera companies, and have Gold Cast Nights, Silver Cast Nights, etc. And charge accordingly for tickets. Jersey Boys runs at the Fifth Avenue through January 12.


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