The story of the Four Seasons succeeds thanks to its engaging singers and evergreen songs
“Jersey Boys’’ begins with a bait-and-switch. A French rapper rides the groove of “Ces Soirées-La,’’ circa 2000 - for English-speaking Four Seasons fans, that’s “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)’’ - and for a moment one has the impression that this quirky, interpretive opening number is a sign of things to come. Suddenly several guys in snappy suits step out of the shadows and break into harmony. And two and a half hours later they’re still at it.
Don’t go to “Jersey Boys’’ expecting the thrill of the new or the charge of the provocative. Do go to “Jersey Boys,’’ though, for the rush of the familiar. The songs, the jokes, the hardscrabble kids, the peaks and pitfalls of stardom - they’re all strands of an American story that is certainly well known but isn’t often done well, especially in that perilously pocked and mockable world of the jukebox musical. Where most of them cram bits of beloved catalogs in and among the cracks of whacked-out plots (see: “Good Vibrations,’’ “All Shook Up,’’ “Lennon,’’ “Mamma Mia!’’), “Jersey Boys’’ comes armed with its own grime-to-glitter story. And with four talented and immensely appealing performers leading us by our ears, evergreen hooks acquire a measure of pathos and joy.
Of course that’s not really the point; if it was we could all stay home and watch “Behind the Music’’ reruns. “Jersey Boys’’ succeeds on the stage thanks to the sharp, saucy writing of Marshall Brickman (who co-wrote “Annie Hall’’ and “Manhattan’’ with Woody Allen) and Rick Elice, crisp direction by Des McAnuff that infuses a constantly shifting narrative with clarity, stylishly understated choreography that’s potent rather than overblown, and - most of all - the irresistible tunes.
There are 33 of them in “Jersey Boys,’’ roughly half a dozen too many by my calculations. We don’t even hear a Four Seasons original until the 45-minute mark. That may gall some audience members, but that’s how this story goes. Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, and Nick Massi played other people’s hits until they met Bob Gaudio, a gifted young songwriter whose material transformed the struggling cover band into stars. In fact, the arc of the show beautifully mirrors the group’s slow build, explosive success, and sad decline, which was sparked by street thug-turned-guitarist DeVito’s mob debts and the more typical pitfalls of feuding band members and disintegrating family lives.
Thanks to industrial scaffolding that passes for a set, the action toggled with remarkable efficiency from street corner to nightclub to domicile to recording studio (where Jonathan Hadley stole most of his scenes as the flamboyant producer Bob Crewe). By the same token the minimalist design offered a flimsy sense of place, saddling the performers with a heavier burden than a feel-good musical has any right to do. On top of that, the Roy Lichtenstein-style projections that marked scene and time changes felt entirely out of place.
By and large, though, the cast rose to the challenge. Joseph Leo Bwarie, while somewhat short on charisma, is a divine singer and a ringer for Valli on showstoppers like “Sherry,’’ “Big Girls Don’t Cry,’’ and “Working My Way Back to You.’’ Matt Bailey nailed the role of hot-headed DeVito, and Josh Franklin was charming as the youthful genius Gaudio. As Massi, Steve Gouveia didn’t come to life until Act 2, when he took his turn in the narration rotation - a smart device that allowed each of the Seasons to tell his own story.
Only a handful of songs are used to actually further the plot; the rest are shamelessly enjoyed for what they are: terrific pop tunes. How good are they? There were several moments when the drama onstage shifted seamlessly from a theatrical event into a concert. The audience cheered wildly. The pop stars bowed in gratitude. It almost felt real.
Joan Anderman can be reached at email@example.com