Dion Deserves a Trip to Broadway, But This Vehicle Needs a Tuneup
I’d love to see Dion DiMucci’s story on Broadway.
It’s a good story. It’s as good as his music.
Growing up as maybe the only kid in the Bronx who wanted to be Hank Williams; bursting into early rock ’n’ roll stardom with the Belmonts through a combination of good looks and a great voice; scoring even better when he goes solo; getting pushed aside by the British invasion, whose practitioners adored him and his cool; lapsing into drug and alcohol addiction; coming back with a topical folk song; spending years playing Christian music; and returning to the rock fold with concerts and albums that include roots rock and blues.
And he’s still here. You can very likely hear the actual Dion in concert this summer at a theater near you.
Outside of the music, he seems like a good guy: relaxed, perceptive, pretty honest.
Plus he’s cool. He’s always been cool, the way James Dean or Dean Martin was cool. He just was. Is.
So the material is there to make his story into a theatrical production, and sure enough, we have one: The Wanderer, which is finishing up a one-month tryout run at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J.
Created with Dion’s approval, it incorporates much of his story. It just has a few problems, notably these:
It doesn’t convey his music and it doesn’t capture his cool.
No one is naïve enough to think a theatrical production will deliver rock ’n’ roll as exhilarating as what we heard decades ago on AM radio. Broadway likes to polish songs into soundtracks for production numbers. But we still need to feel the essence, because the music is the main reason most of the audience has paid theater prices to be there in the first place.
The Wanderer includes most of the Dion songs the audience will remember, and lead actor Mike Wartella takes his best shot at the impossible task of replicating Dion’s voice.
Trouble is, the songs too often seem to be inserted for convenience rather than fidelity to his story. Having him sing “Runaround Sue” three years before it was recorded makes it a plot element when it was more than that. It was his first №1 hit, the song that established him without the Belmonts.
When we hear Bruce Springsteen’s “If I Should Fall Behind” or Tom Waits’s “San Diego Serenade,” both of which are fine songs, it doesn’t just erase chronology. It suggests there aren’t Dion songs strong enough to reinforce hose dramatic points.
The show finishes, spoiler alert, with “Abraham, Martin and John,” which doesn’t point toward where Dion was going and doesn’t make the triumphant victory statement we were expecting after the number of times Dion declared that his real goal was to make “music that’s really me.” All due respect to “Abraham, Martin and John,” that doesn’t feel like what he meant.
As to the matter of cool, the show seems to walk around it. Maybe Dion himself feels uncomfortable with it. Whatever the reason, the Dion in The Wanderer is mostly troubled, frustrated, impatient and neurotic. Cool seems to bring him little pleasure. Nor, for that matter, does music. Stardom and cooldom look so unappealing we half expect him to break into “Is That All There Is?”
The Wanderer has other issues as well.
Like Dion himself, it gives copious credit to his girlfriend and later wife Susan (played by Christy Altomare) for pulling him back from the addiction edge. So it’s frustrating that Susan’s character spends most of the show either being smilingly supportive or wringing her hands.
Dion’s parents, who have intriguing and rather poignant stories of their own, never become much more than the targets of Dion’s frustration.
All that said, The Wanderer isn’t without good points or promise.
It’s a big show, two hours and 45 minutes with a lot of high-energy dancing and ambitious sets that seem in constant motion themselves as they conjure the Bronx in the 1950s.
If the dancing is generic Broadway, not evocative of the rock ’n’ roll era in which it’s set, it’s colorful. It gives the folks a show. The real-life Winter Dance Party tour that led to the plane crash deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper — an event that had a profound effect on Dion because he was almost aboard the plane — undoubtedly didn’t look nearly as lively or collaborative as it becomes in The Wanderer.
On a smaller but impressive note, the show salutes several often-forgotten artists that Dion loved, from pre-war bluesman Skip James to 1950s saxophone session great Big Al Sears.
The Belmonts, Dion’s most famous vocal backup group, get nowhere near the respect here that they deserve, but the actors who play them — Stephen Cerf, Billy Finn and Jess Leprotto — do a splendid job of recreating some of Dion’s freshest and best records, notably “I Wonder Why.”
In general, The Wanderer heads in the right direction. The problem lies in the path it takes to get there, and this may be a case where there’s too much material, where the writers try to include everything at the cost of focus.
The two most successful theatrical shows that aspired to be more than jukebox musicals — Jersey Boys and Ain’t Too Proud — sent us home remembering what we loved about the Four Seasons and the Temptations. If it’s going to Broadway, The Wanderer needs to do that for Dion.