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Versatile ‘Jersey Boys’ actress knows Chicago, and some crazy quick-change parts in musical

Submitted by on May 14, 2015 – 3:47 pm

Frankie Valli (Hayden Milanes, foreground) and the Four Seasons at center stage in 'Jersey Boys.' (Jeremy Daniel)Interview: Columbia College grad Leslie Rochette says zooming in and out of high-contrast roles keeps her energy on edge. Show at the Cadillac Palace runs though May 24. 

By Lawrence B. Johnson

New Orleans native Leslie Rochette, who plays – among a lightning paced scramble of other roles – Frankie Valli’s daughter Francine in the tour production of “Jersey Boys” currently at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, seems to have found a second home in Chicago.

Knowing the richness of Chicago’s theater scene, Rochette made a bee-line for Columbia College to study theater, graduating in 2008. When the first national tour of “Jersey Boys” hit Chicago in 2012, Rochette was in the ensemble, and now she’s back as one of three women in the cast who all fill multiple parts. 

Leslie Rochette, in one of her roles as the lead performer in a girl group, sings 'My Boyfriend's Back' in 'Jersey Boys.' (Joan Marcus)“When we come out at the end, people are amazed that there are only three of us,” Rochette says with a laugh. The trio pull off 52 characters. “We all have some pretty quick changes – eight seconds for one of mine. And you have to snap from one character to the next. The costumes, wigs and music all help, but then you have to do it on your own.

“But the changes also keep recharging you throughout the show. It’s like being shot out of a cannon. You’re a French girl in 2000 one minute and a girl in a 1950s New Jersey bar the next. I change costumes 17 times before I ever appear as Francine.”

In a tragic twist of a show that’s essentially upbeat, crammed with the hit songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and sensationally popular, Frankie’s daughter Francine makes her final appearance in ghostly form – “an angel,” as Rochette puts it. At age 22, having barely connected with her famous father, she dies of a drug overdose.

The jukebox musical “Jersey Boys,” for those who have been cave-dwelling since the show opened on Broadway in 2005 and won four Tony Awards including Best Musical, is the blue-collar to riches story of four kids from New Jersey who roared to the heights of pop music and stayed a while.

It’s a dramatized hit parade of remarkably inventive songs, each one seemingly more imaginative than the last. The list runs from “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” to “Rag Doll” and “C’mon Marianne.” Murmurs of recognition, underscored by bursts of applause and shouts of delight, leave no doubt the audience knows these songs. In performances I’ve seen, just the first two chords of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” arguably the single finest work by Four Seasons member and song-writer Bob Gaudio, have been enough osend the house into cognitive rapture.

The Four Seasons make another hit recording. (Jeremy Daniel)Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were a phenomenon of the 1960s, the generation of Leslie Rochette’s parents. But she says she also grew up with those songs because her mom and dad were big fans and there was one encounter that proved to be permanently infectious.

“We took this road trip to Alabama to visit my grandparents and stopped at a gas station, where we bought a little tape of oldies. It was a cassette. Are you familiar with those?” (Yes, and with eight-track and even 45s; at least I can say 78s preceded me.) “One of the songs was ‘Sherry,’ and it became my personal song. I took it home and created dances to it.”

Rochette needs all her stage skills this time around with “Jersey Boys.” Feature this: She plays both Francine and the girl’s mother! How does that work?

“You have to give the mother a little more weight, not so bouncy, more determined,” says Rochette. “I’m from an Italian family where people talk with their hands, and I use some of that. My mom says my performance as the mother reminds her of her own mother.”

But Rochette’s glamor moment comes when the three women team up as a girl group,  The Angels, to sing “My Boyfriend’s Back,” with Rochette as the lead.

It’s all good, she says, not least that the cast includes her new husband John Rochette. And she plans to stay with the show for, well, as far into the future as she can see.

“We’re so blessed, and I’m so in love with it,” says the girl who once made up dances to ‘Sherry.’ “I feel like I’ve come full circle.”

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