Dion had his first hit four years before The Beatles came to the United States. And today, at 82, he remains active as a recording artist, a concert performer, and one of the forces behind “The Wanderer,” a jukebox musical featuring songs from throughout his career. It is currently having its world premiere at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn.
The musical’s young, reckless Dion, though — who is seen fighting in the streets, and battling heroin — doesn’t exactly seem like a good candidate for longevity.
The program says the show was “produced in cooperation” with Dion, and he attended opening night, April 4, watching from the fourth row (one row in front of the show’s music consultant Steven Van Zandt) and joining the cast onstage when they took their bows and sang an encore version of the musical’s title song.
The musical, whose book was written by Charles Messina (and which is being directed, here, by Kenneth Ferrone), focuses on the first decade of Dion’s career (1958-1968), though it includes some songs he recorded later, including Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind.”
Dion was the fourth act on the 1959 concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, after which Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper died in a plane crash. “The Wanderer” shows him not just winning a seat on the flight and then giving it up to Valens, but persuading Valens to take it. The incident messes with his head and accelerates the downward spiral that had already started due to his heroin addiction and his dissatisfaction with the direction his career was taking.
“The Wanderer” shows the depths to which Dion fell and how he turned his life around. The music and the dancing would have been enough to make it a great show. But in addition to that, it is a love story, a redemption story and a gritty slice of life set almost entirely in the Bronx neighborhood where Dion grew up, vividly depicted by set designer Beowulf Boritt. A Broadway run is being planned.
Mike Wartella plays Dion, who puts together the golden-voiced doo-wop group The Belmonts with a trio of local guys (played by Stephen Cerf, Billy Finn and Jess LeProtto) before going solo. Christy Altomare plays his love interest, Susan, who moves to The Bronx from Vermont and seems to be from a different, better world, but has a dark secret of her own.
Dion’s parents, Frances (Joli Tribuzio) and Pat DiMucci (Johnny Tammaro), are trapped in a bad marriage. Meanwhile, Pat and record company owner Bob Schwartz (Jeffrey Schecter) are perpetual thorns in Dion’s side, pressuring him to remain a commercially safe, anodye pop star instead of letting his inner rocker out.
“You gotta decide if you wanna be a street punk or a singer,” Pat says.
“Both,” Dion replies.
Further complicating things, Dion has an angel and devil. The angel is Willie Green (Kingsley Leggs), an older local musician who missed his own shot at the big time but gained a lot of wisdom along the way. The devil is Johnny (Joey McIntyre), Dion’s manager, who facilitates Dion’s drug use.
Yes, that is the same Joey McIntyre who is a member of the pop group New Kids on the Block and who, therefore, knows a thing or two about teen-idol success. For the last 25 years, he has been taking on a lot of acting roles, and he makes a great villain here, slinking around the stage and telling Dion what he wants to hear while nonchalantly encouraging his self-destruction.
“With this, you could do anything,” says Johnny, handing Dion a needle.
Holly, Valens and The Big Bopper are played by Finn, Miguel Jarquin-Moreland and Cerf, respectively, and one scene shows them singing a boisterous medley of their hits, with Dion, at the Surf Ballroom.
As far as the other music … the scene in which The Belmonts crystallize their sound via “A Teenager in Love” together is a marvel — the four actors sing beautifully together — and the song is also used very effectively in a sad, slow reprise, sung by Susan at the depths of her own romantic despair. “Runaround Sue” gets a buoyant production number in which Susan playfully pretends to be disloyal to Dion (though she is anything but).
Later Dion singles such as “King of the New York Streets” (1989) and “Sweet Surrender” (1980) are used — the former as a kind of theme song for his pre-fame life, the latter, late in the show, to evoke his spiritual rebirth. Willie Green sings “Son of Skip James” (2007) as a way of establishing his down-to-Earth musical influence on Dion.
There is some new music here, too, including “The You I Know,” a big, soul-searching ballad (with hints of girl-group melodrama) for Susan, written by Dion and Mike Aquilina.
As with any jukebox musical, an exact reproduction of history is not really the point. Songs don’t necessarily appear in the same order that they did in real life. And I can’t imagine that The Belmonts’ sound came together as quickly as is depicted here, or that Dion left them behind with little more than a shrug, as he does in the show’s second act. I’m sure some of these characters didn’t even exist in real life, but are composites of various people, or just ways of moving the story along.
But fiction can sometimes get at the truth more effectively than biography can. And Dion’s participation — and the big smile on his face, as he walked onstage and accepted the audience’s enthusiastic applause, at the Paper Mill Playhouse — lead me to believe that he is happy with the way “The Wanderer” is representing his often dark but ultimately uplifting story.
Or you could say it this way: He is venturing into the world of musical theater on his own terms, as he always has done.
“The Wanderer” will be at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through April 24. Visit papermill.org.
Click here to listen 20 great Dion songs, through the years.
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