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STAGE REVIEW

A musical of peaks and Valli

‘Jersey Boys’ recalls ups, downs of Four Seasons

From left: Quinn VanAntwerp, Matt Bailey, Joseph Leo Bwarie, and Steve Gouveia play the members of the Four Seasons in “Jersey Boys.’’ From left: Quinn VanAntwerp, Matt Bailey, Joseph Leo Bwarie, and Steve Gouveia play the members of the Four Seasons in “Jersey Boys.’’ (Joan Marcus)
By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / December 20, 2010

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Thanks to the televised antics of Snooki, the Situation, and the rest of those budding Rhodes Scholars on “Jersey Shore,’’ it’s been a rough year, image-wise, for the Garden State.

Let’s not forget, however, that New Jersey also gave the world Sinatra, Springsteen, “The Sopranos,’’ and — admittedly in a different weight class — Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

They were the inspiration for “Jersey Boys,’’ a likable musical biography that has returned to Boston for a six-week run at the Colonial Theatre. “Let’s face it, we put Jersey on the map,’’ boasts Tommy DeVito (Matt Bailey), one of the original Four Seasons, suggesting the out-of-control ego that will later lead to major complications for the vocal group.

“Jersey Boys’’ has a less contrived plot than most jukebox musicals because there is a real-life, up-and-down trajectory to trace. However, there are still some sluggish interludes when the show idles in neutral, stalling for time until the next song.

Ah, but when that next song arrives and Joseph Leo Bwarie grabs the mike. . . . Well, talk about high notes, in every sense of the phrase.

Bwarie’s performance as Frankie Valli (a role he also played last year when “Jersey Boys’’ came to Boston) goes beyond mere mimicry. The Emerson College grad doesn’t simply channel Valli; he inscribes the role with a breath-catching artistry of his own as he soars, without seeming effort, into the upper reaches of the human voice.

(Because of the demands of the part, it will be split between Bwarie, who will perform it six times a week, and John Michael Dias, a Rhode Island native and Boston Conservatory graduate, who will play the role twice a week.)

Bwarie fully deploys his remarkable pipes about midway through Act 1, and that is when “Jersey Boys’’ really comes alive. At that point, the Four Seasons consist of Frankie, Tommy, Nick Massi (Steve Gouveia), and Bob Gaudio (Quinn VanAntwerp). Attired in snazzy matching jackets, they launch into the three breakthrough 1960s hits that defined their sound: “Sherry,’’ “Big Girls Don’t Cry,’’ and “Walk Like a Man.’’ Even after all these years, those songs still gleam like the small gems of pop craftsmanship they are.

Ditto for the songs that course through Act 2 — “Let’s Hang On (To What We’ve Got),’’ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,’’ “Working My Way Back to You’’ — as the group goes through personal and professional turmoil and Valli branches out into a solo career.

In its slick, peppy way, “Jersey Boys’’ offers a primer on the music industry, with a nod to the pre-MTV importance to pop music of such television showcases as “American Bandstand’’ and “The Ed Sullivan Show.’’ Onstage, performing expertly synchronized dance steps (kudos to Sergio Trujillo, the choreographer), these Jersey boys project a clean-cut aura. Of course, those guys, and those times, were anything but innocent, as “Jersey Boys’’ makes clear.

Bailey gives swaggering, ne’er-do-well Tommy an itchy, loose-cannon restlessness that makes it entirely plausible that Tommy would — at least in this version of events — spearhead the formation of the group but later nearly tear it apart by running up huge debts to the mob and the IRS (not to mention hitting on Frankie’s girlfriend).

In a deft bit of staging, director Des McAnuff captures the moment the balance of power shifts from Tommy to Bob, the gifted songwriter whose irresistible melodies would create the group’s sound. The songwriter sits at a piano in a bar, playing “Cry for Me,’’ while Frankie, Nick, and — eventually, grudgingly —Tommy, join him. Their chemistry is immediately evident.

As Nick, Gouveia delivers an understated, deadpan performance that seems fitting for a guy who ruefully (and correctly) describes himself as the Ringo of the group. VanAntwerp brings an easy self-confidence, even a hint of arrogance, to his portrayal of Gaudio, a character who clearly knows how talented he is.

And Bwarie? Judging by the bashful smile with which he responded to ecstatic ovations at the performance I attended, it’s by no means clear he knows how talented he is. But by the end of the Boston run of “Jersey Boys’’ on Jan. 30, I suspect that audiences will have helped him figure it out.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

JERSEY BOYS

Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Music by Bob Gaudio. Lyrics by Bob Crewe.

Directed by Des McAnuff

Sets, Klara Zieglerova. Lights, Howell Binkley. Costumes, Jess Goldstein. Sound, Steve Canyon Kennedy. Choreography, Sergio Trujillo.

At: Colonial Theatre. Through Jan. 30. Tickets $43-$109. 800-982-2787, www.broadway acrossamerica.com/boston