Can't take my eyes off 'Jersey Boys'

Categories: Theater
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Joan Marcus
Jersey Boys is such a complete dream of a musical that breaking it down into particular feats of stagecraft and rock performance does the experience a disservice. The show is so fluid, so consistently fun and funny, that it casts a spell--only the post-scene panting of performers breaks the illusion. Which isn't to say it's perfect, just perfect where it counts: This reality-flecked, R-rated autobiographical fantasia about '60s Italo-American pop greats the 4 Seasons builds the excitement of boy-harmony pop music right into its narrative rhythm. A returning touring version of a hit Broadway play should be slick, but Jersey Boys is excited.

Biographical rock-musicals about real bands, with live bands providing music, work best on smaller stages as a rule--the American History Theatre in St. Paul does this kind of thing very well. But somehow the extra dazzle of a circus-sized production fits the outsized personalities of Frankie Valli and his pals, especially guitarist Tommy DeVito, played by Matt Bailey, who speaks in a volatile, rapid-fire comic gangsterese. Bailey's timing is so good that the second act sags without him, if only by comparison.

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Joan Marcus
It's inherently unfair to compare real singers to the performers impersonating them, but the genius of Joseph Leo Bwarie's Frankie Valli is that he underplays him as a singer, delivering Bob Gaudio's songs with the same gentlemanly, hovering quality that Valli maintained onstage, while nailing the unearthly falsetto. You'll miss the bratty edge of the real Valli--the sandpapery "iy iy iy" on "Big Girls Don't Cry"--but Bwarie is right to pace himself and let the music do the emoting, and his grace is extraordinary. In dramatic scenes, his eyes communicate something in store for the next number even if he's written to be the most decent and loyal bad-dad onstage--not a part that commands scenes to a stop.

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Joan Marcus
The women's roles are similarly under-conceived but physically strong, and the rest of the cast is as fantastic: Joseph Siravo, who played Tony Soprano's father on The Sopranos, almost seems like the physical comic model of SNL's Bobby Moynihan, but sharper, and each of the other players in multiple roles has his or her hit moment. The cliches--a nod to Singin' in the Rain's door-knocking sequence, a hoary rite-of-passage-by-prostitute moment--are quickly redeemed with satiric twists and a kind of pervasive, knowing intelligence. This kind of crossover hit still draws audience members expressing homophobia in response to a gay character--Jonathan Hadley's Bob Crewe, though the real-life Crewe helped write the musical (along with Gaudio and writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice). But the script both addresses and transcends that discomfort: It keeps its nostalgia honest.

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There's no denying the technical feat of Jersey Boys, which has the speed associated with the computer age. Yet it moves like a magic trick rather than a CG cartoon, hiding any stage transitions by masterfully drawing attention away from them. The biggest shows of design are always brief, making their indelible impression before disappearing. For one scene dramatizing an Ed Sullivan appearance, the actors performing as the 4 Seasons are actually filmed by TV cameras with the image displayed above them, inter-cut with crowd shots from the actual show that aired. Where rock biographies in cinema seem to have gone stale, the make-believe of musicals allows for the wonder and instant mythology that pop requires. And this musical, based on a group rock history never quite gave its due, deserves its own pop moment.

Jersey Boys runs through May 8.

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