'Blood memory' connects 'Jersey Boys' star John Lloyd Young with Frankie Valli

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Like most of us, John Lloyd Young tried some new things during COVID lockdowns.

But instead of coming out of it with an affinity for homemade sourdough bread or a living room full of DIY crafts, he emerged with a ton of new material.

"I have a friend in Las Vegas who has a place there, it's called The Space," he said. "It was a live venue where I played in the years leading up to COVID, and after the shutdown orders happened he and I decided to bring cameras in and to do livestreams. We did that about once a month through the whole lockdown and I came out of it with about 10 new sets."

John Lloyd Young is playing a long-delayed run at Feinstein's/54 Below in New York City.
John Lloyd Young is playing a long-delayed run at Feinstein's/54 Below in New York City.

So for his long-awaited and thrice-delayed return engagement at Feinstein's/54 Below in New York, which begins Jan. 25, he decided to pull all out the stops.

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"What I decided to do is to take the setlist that I played with over the quarantine and, with a nod toward Las Vegas and Atlantic City, to do a setlist roulette," he said. "So from night to night, I'll have someone in the front row choose out of a hat what we'll be doing the next night. Each one will have a theme, so mostly Motown or mostly my debut album."

Naturally, the Tony and Grammy Award winner is pulling out plenty of "Jersey Boys."

John Lloyd Young is playing a long-delayed run at Feinstein's/54 Below in New York City.
John Lloyd Young is playing a long-delayed run at Feinstein's/54 Below in New York City.

Broadway's original Frankie Valli, as well as the star of the Clint Eastwood-directed Warner Bros. film adaptation of the musical, is the only American actor to receive all four major Lead Actor honors for a Broadway musical: Tony, Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle and Theatre World awards.

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"There'll be a promise from night to night of such amazing great classic songs as you would expect from people like Little Anthony, The Righteous Brothers, Smokey Robinson, The Platters, Roy Orbison," he said. "There will never be a night that doesn't have some of those people in the mix. And then with some 'Jersey Boys,' too."

One show out of the week is reserved for all Broadway, though. That evening, Jan. 29, will also be live-streamed.

"It's my first time back to (New York) since this devastation happened ... so I reserved that night to do an all-Broadway set. I have the same taste in Broadway songs as I do the other songs that I sing, so it draws from that same classic period of '60s '70s, '80s. So there'll be songs from shows like 'The Wiz,' 'The Music Man,' 'Les Miz,' Rodgers and Hammerstein. When Stephen Sondheim passed away recently, I decided to add a Sondheim song to the set."

A real 'Jersey Boy'

John Lloyd Young is playing a long-delayed run at Feinstein's/54 Below in New York City.
John Lloyd Young is playing a long-delayed run at Feinstein's/54 Below in New York City.

Young, though a native of California, has proven his Jersey mettle many times over, sleeping on a friend's mother's couch in Englewood when he first moved to New York, and living in Jersey City throughout the "Jersey Boys" run. His first Equity job was at McCarter Theatre in Princeton, and he says he loved exploring the urban decay beachside in Asbury Park.

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Young will always be linked to "Jersey Boys," but his connection to Frankie Valli and the impact it has left on his life goes beyond show biz.

"I have very similar DNA growing up because Frankie Valli and I, in terms of our origin stories, they're very similar. His parents were immigrants to New Jersey from Sicily. My great-grandparents were immigrants to Brooklyn from Sicily."

He said channeling his own grandfather rather than simply imagining what it was like to be Valli gave him a unique perspective.

"They were very similar," he said, "and when I met Frankie Valli and got to know him, my guess was correct. So I was able to feel, sometimes you call it in acting, blood memory."

Young also heard Valli say in an interview early on in his "Jersey Boys" journey something that stuck with him and informed his interpretation, and life.

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"I looked at him as a veteran entertainer, someone who's had everything that could go right go right and he said, 'success bears pain.'

"There's something kind of interesting and fatalistic about living on an island where any day the Mount Etna volcano could blow you off the island," he said. "There's always the specter of this danger literally hanging over your head on that island. And so there's two sides of that. There's 'live life to the fullest because it doesn't last forever.' And then there's also that fiery kind of Sicilian temper."

Feinstein's/54 Below lineup

John Lloyd Young is playing a long-delayed run at Feinstein's/54 Below in New York City.
John Lloyd Young is playing a long-delayed run at Feinstein's/54 Below in New York City.

At 7 p.m. on Jan. 25 to 28, and Jan. 30, Young will present "John Lloyd Young: Broadway’s Jersey Boy," a celebration of classic hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s, rock 'n' roll, doo-wop and R&B standards, including tracks from his debut album "My Turn."

At 7 p.m. on Jan. 29, a show that will also be live-streamed, Young offers "John Lloyd Young’s Broadway," where he will sing from shows including "Jersey Boys," "The Wiz," "Chicago," "Hair," "Dreamgirls" and more, plus classics by Broadway writers including Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein II and Frank Loesser.

For tickets and more information, visit 54below.com/events/john-lloyd-young-broadways-jersey-boy.

Ilana Keller is an award-winning journalist and lifelong New Jersey resident who loves Broadway and really bad puns. She highlights arts advocacy and education, theater fundraisers and more through her column, "Sightlines." Reach out on Twitter: @ilanakeller; ikeller@gannettnj.com

This article originally appeared on Asbury Park Press: 'Jersey Boys' star John Lloyd Young at Feinstein's/54 Below in NYC

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