An inside look at the prep for Jersey Boys 

From left, Leo Moore, Stephen Gagnon-Ruscio, Andrew Stuetz and Ethan Heimonen rehearse at Sault Community Theatre, April 11.

With more than 100 hours of rehearsing behind them, the cast of Jersey Boys is energetic and buoyant. The West End Theatre Project’s (WETP) latest production will take the stage of the Sault Community Theatre April 17.

Kara Colynuck, like her fellow cast and crew members, has put in the work. Colynuck makes it clear she’s enjoying every minute of the process. She pops into partial rehearsals – even when she knows she won’t be called upon to perform – “just to hang out” and see the show come together.

“I personally feel so incredibly lucky to come to rehearsal and listen to these four boys sing three days a week, every week.” she says. “It’s incredible. Sometimes I get so enveloped in it that I forget my cues and I don’t come on stage when I’m supposed to.”

Jersey Boys tells the story of the Four Seasons, four New Jersey kids who began by signing under neighbourhood street lights and went on to sell an estimated 100 million records and earn a spot in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame. 

The show premiered in 2004, and has been an international smash hit. The local production sold more than 1,000 tickets before Christmas, so there’s no shortage of excitement and anticipation, locally.

The show is produced by Valerie Pluss and directed by Lucas Beaver.

Beaver wanted to do Jersey Boys last year, but the rights weren’t available. 

“I had to wait, there’s still productions of Jersey Boys on cruise lines and other markets because of the popularity of it,” says Beaver. “We’re excited to do this one. I think the public is excited, too.”

Beaver, Artistic Director at WETP, spent hours mapping out the scenes for Jersey Boys, well before the start of rehearsals.

From left, Ethan Heimonen, Stephen Gagnon-Ruscio and Leo Moore on a break during rehearsal March 20.

He used a large spreadsheet with every cast member’s name on it and what characters they play, so he would know what scenes they’re in and what songs they sing at a certain time. Knowing each character’s journey allowed him to identify what actors might be available to fill other, smaller roles at a given point in the story. 

Once the flow of the cast was mapped out, Beaver began blocking, a process of identifying the exact placement – and movements – of the characters in each scene.

With scene locations and personnel mapped out, Beaver then examined the finer details and made any necessary changes. This could involve how people are standing, or where someone enters a scene.

He laughs when asked if his prep work was knocked off over a single weekend.

“I like what I’ve come up with,” says Beaver, raising his voice a notch to be heard over the The Angels’ “My Boyfriend’s Back” being rehearsed 20 feet away. 

“I pretty much knew the look of the set I wanted,” Beaver says. “I knew I wanted the band on stage. I knew certain things. Some things I let come organically once we started rehearsing. When we had auditions and we got the men that we wanted to play the Four Seasons, I knew what we could do in other areas because we had the voices to back up the songs.”

The cast includes: Stephen Gagnon-Ruscio as Frankie Valli, Leo Moore as Tommy DeVito, Andrew Stuetz as Nick Massi and Ethan Heimonen as Bob Gaudio.

Colynuck, Christina Speers, and Sarah St. Amour – all friends away from the stage – round out the main players, filling multiple roles and supplying background vocals on a number of songs.

From left, Sarah St. Amour, Kara Colynuck and Christina Speers after an April 11 rehearsal at Sault Community Theatre.

Most have been a part of at least 15 productions, some more than 30.

It’s March 17. Three floors above Queen Street, in a 100-year-old building, most of the cast and crew have assembled for their regular Sunday night rehearsal.

It’s the second rehearsal of the day, the group having rehearsed earlier from 1-4 p.m.

In exactly a month the show will open at the Sault Community Theatre for the first of four shows. This evening’s rehearsal will go until 9.

At just after 7 p.m., they’re into Scene 30 of Act Two. The scene calls for the singing group to be in a heated discussion over a recently-incurred debt.

Beaver, watching studiously, lets the scene play out then calls for a pause. He suggests one of the principals speak his line first, then sit down, rather than speak first, then sit. The cast gathers itself and does another take. Everyone agrees, it works.

“Working with Lucas and getting feedback from each other is great,” says Gagnon-Ruscio, who will play lead singer Franki Valli. “It’s a very collaborative experience and I’m glad that we’re able to be candid with each other, give and take feedback.”

“I’ve always had an eye,” says Beaver, explaining part of his long list of responsibilities as director. “I have a math brain, right? Math was my strong suit. Problem-solving and putting the pieces of a puzzle together – and dissecting. I love doing that.”

Many pieces of the production puzzle are now in place since the cast and crew gathered for a Day One meet-and-greet in early January and conducted the first read-throughs of the script. 

Moore says he and his fellow cast members like where things are at now.

“It’s really starting to come together,” Moore says. “With a month left we’re just getting to play with some of the fun things, like the way that we say a line. We don’t have scripts in our hands all the time. It’s feeling really good, we’re all super excited for it.”

“We’ve blocked most of the show. Now, it’s really about going back through everything with a fine comb,” says Beaver. “Talking about character, intention, does that seem believable? (We’re) cleaning up choreography. Our crew has started to come as well, making sure the timing of when things have to be on and off and that everybody knows what they are doing in that department.”

In the home stretch of the evening, around 8:30, Beaver has the cast work on the hit tune “Who Loves You Pretty Baby”. Beaver goes over hand motions with the singers, then talks footwork, specifically which foot should lead to enter into a synchronized spin.

The main cast members have varying frames of reference of The Four Seasons growing up. 

“Who Loves You Pretty Baby” is one song Stuetz knows quite well.

“The Four Seasons were around in my life ever since I was in the car with my Dad,” says Stuetz. “Hey, I give credit to my Dad because one of his favourite songs is ‘Who Loves You…’ because of the fact there are about six different songs within that same song. He’s played that song for as long as I can remember. Over 20 years of hearing “Who Loves You’ in various forms and ways. It was destiny that I would get the chance to sing it on stage in front of him.”

When the cast and crew gather three nights later, the very first thing they do are some vocal warm-up exercises. Vocal director Dave Dellaire has all singers form a circle and together they are instructed to make a sizzle sound.

Then they run through a series of scales. Dellaire reminds them to use their abdominal muscles for transitions. Progressively louder ‘Eeeees’ and ‘Ohhhhs’ fill the room.

Dellaire, who recently returned to the Sault after working in theatre for 20 years in the U.K., explains the need for exercises.

“Sometimes we just go straight into it, but it is important to do warm-up before any kind of singing,” he says. “This show is very demanding vocally for all of the guys, and the notes are quite high for some of them. You want to make sure you’re connected to your body and know what you’re doing with your voice.”

When not needed in a scene, cast members take a breather on a large sectional located at the far end of the room, which must be 100 feet long. Most everyone pays at least an occasional visit to the candy dish located at the room’s midway point. Jolly Ranchers are a favorite.

At 10 minutes before eight, Ethan Heimonen belts out the lead vocal for “Oh What a Night” with Music Director Ronny Dal Cin capturing all the right chords on keys. Just 16, Heimonen is ‘The Kid’ in the band, but blends right in with the other leads, all of whom are 14-15 years his senior.

Heimonen says playing an actual real life character and not a fictional one – he’s played Sponge Bob and Pugsley (Addams Family) – is challenging and a ton of fun.

“It’s exciting when you play that character (Bob Gaudio) and there’s an authenticity you want to get…his mannerisms. You know there’s someone else who is like that and you really want to try and go for that, how Bob Gaudio would have been in his relationship with Frankie and stuff.” 

The busiest of the leads will be Gagnon-Ruscio, who plays the group’s star, Frankie Valli. The lead singer’s life is marked by some supreme highs and incredibly tough lows.

Gagnon-Ruscio says his most recent couple of roles have been city Italian boys, so he likes and sympathizes with Valli’s character.

“He’s a naive kid from the streets, and he kind of grows up with some of the wrong people. But he’s doing what he loves. And seeing the transformation in him…he gets maybe a little bit cocky. But he is good, and he knows he’s good. I think his best moments are when he’s interacting with the other characters and peeling back layers of his character. I think he blossoms quite well, especially in the second act.”

Like Gagnon-Ruscio, Moore puts rote memorization at the top of his list of the toughest aspects of live theatre. 

“You probably saw tonight that a bunch of us have cue cards,” said Moore. “That’s a trick that I’ve found so that I can flip through and use flash card techniques for learning my lines. I’m terrible. I have the memory of a goldfish. It’s not the easiest thing in the world for me to learn all this dialogue and with the stacks of cards that I have for this show it’s been very important to have those cards to flip through.”

To get in character to play Tommy DeVito, Moore focused on DeVito’s Jersey accent.

“Pulling from experience, we did Million Dollar Quartet and I played Jerry Lee Lewis. Getting into the Jerry Lee voice helped me to get into character. The same thing with finding Tommy’s voice. Tommy’s kind of one-dimensional but he’s got some very specific things about him that, I did some research and I said okay, this he’s not your run-of-the-mill nice guy. He’s not your love interest kind of dude. He’s a little greasy, a little slimy and has some character flaws. I keep that stuff in mind, but with me it always starts with the accent and how the character speaks.”

For Stuetz, playing the oft-irascible Nick Massi meant dissecting his character.

“I try to figure out what makes Nikki tick,” says Stuetz. “Who is he off stage? What is he doing when eyes aren’t on him? I think the main thing I’m trying to do is just bring authenticity to him and also get people interested in what his story is, while people are focusing on the story of Frankie.”

We move to Sunday, March 24, with opening night now just three weeks away. It’s a shade past 6:30 p.m. 

Rony Dal Cin loosens up at the keyboards playing bits of songs, whatever pops into his mind. He hits on some of Led Zeppelin’s “All of My Love, and snippets of other pop hits, even the screechy, unforgettable sounds from the shower scene in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. He’s Beaver’s main man, the director’s go-to guy in charge of ensuring the music-side of the show is spot on.

A veteran of “too many productions to remember,” Dal Cin is perpetually smiling, cracking jokes. He’s asked how much he’s enjoyed working with the group on Jersey Boys.

“It’s a treat,” says Dal Cin. “They’re all top-notch singers. It’s just so much fun to sit back and listen to it come out. The first time I heard those sounds…and it’s great already. And you know it’s going to get better. That’s the kicker right there.”

Dal Cin says the main challenge in this production are the starts and stops.

“Because there’s lots of dialogue, it’s when do you break into the tune? I have to really concentrate and listen to their dialogue and then when they’re finished, you know they broke the wall and now it’s time to get back into the music part of it, I need to know exactly when they’re  going to start. That’s the challenge. The music itself, it’s on paper., so if you can read it you can play it, but shaping it to what’s going on with the actors is the trick.”

Beaver reminds the cast to be aware of dynamics, and notes there was too much chit-chat while people were on stage during the previous rehearsal. 

“Stay in the moment,” he advises.

On this night, the cast and crew will do a complete run-through of the entire show. 

When it ends a little past 9 p.m., Beaver is smiling.

“That was a good run,” Beaver tells his cast and crew. “We start the run tomorrow night at 7.”

Speers says the excitement goes up a notch for everyone at this point in rehearsals with the full run-throughs of the show. 

“It’s performance conditions. You’re going to run it from start to finish – it’s not like film. This is where you really start to feel it. You’re getting a sense of the flow and where the changes are. You start to get more and more confident.”

Speers is thrilled to be part of Jersey Boys, and working alongside longtime friends, St. Amour and Colynuck is a bonus.

“Kara has been my best friend since…I cannot remember my life before Kara,” says Speers, beaming. “Sarah and I have known each other since we were teenagers. It is super fun to work with them.”

There’s still a handful of rehearsals at the Queen Street building before the production moves to the Sault Community Theatre, April 10. The sets and the props will be there and there will be costume changes. It’s a significant departure from what the cast is used to, says Beaver, and some may need time to adjust.

“We can rehearse for months and months and everybody has their stuff down pat,” he says. “We move into the theatre, for some people, it’s like taking a few steps back until they get their grounding there, but our time in the theatre is limited before we open.”

St. Amour says everyone in the cast is looking forward to moving over to the Sault Community Theatre, where the adrenaline flows at a new level.

“It’s a buzz for us,” says St. Amour. “When we finally get to be at the theatre, and get to run through the whole process of those quick (costume) changes, it’s pretty magical. I’ve been involved in other shows with very fast changes, so it’s something I’m familiar with. Whenever I’m sitting in an audience, and  I can see that that’s happening, I love just knowing the excitement that must be going on backstage.”

Making calm out of what could be chaos are the stage managers. Kristine Thomas is the Stage Manager, and assisted by Trudy DeGraw (Asst. Stage Manager, stage right) and Betty Currie (stage left Assistant Stage Manager).

Thomas calls it her “dream team.” The trio have worked together “for years” and “complement each other well and we have a lot of fun.”

During Queen Street rehearsals DeGraw would read scripts in the absence of cast members while addressing set requirements. The crew happily pitches in wherever and whenever needed.

Every production presents challenges. With Jersey Boys, Thomas says the sheer number of scenes is the major one. Bringing the backstage crew into the rehearsal process earlier is paying off in dealing with all the scene changes.

“Act One alone has 33 scenes, which while we’re not moving huge set pieces around, requires a lot of smaller pieces to be set up and taken off, often and quickly,” says Thomas. “Our pre-planning has helped make this so much smoother.”

“Once the show opens, my assistant SM’s are in charge of everything backstage, cast and crew included,” continued Thomas. “As Stage Manager, I’m up in the lighting booth calling lighting cues and fly cues. I also follow along to make sure we’re all on the same page, provide gentle reminders of what’s coming up next and sing annoyingly over the headset.”

Well, let’s see now. The Four Seasons got their start by singing under street lights. 

A lighting booth just might be the ticket. 

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