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Theater review: The Jersey Boys

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You can fairly say that I've never been a Frankie Valli fan. The sound of Valli's growling falsetto singing "Big Girls Don't Cry" has always had the power to bring my fist crashing down on the buttons of my car radio -- as forcefully as if I'd seen an ant or a roach crawling out of it. I'd rather listen to almost anything else besides that caterwauling.

So I was amazed when, as predicted by more than a couple of my best theater buds, I was absolutely entranced when my wife Sue, a true Four Seasons believer, finally coaxed me into seeing Jersey Boys on Broadway last summer. The book, by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, is far more than the usual string of convenient segues between jukebox hits. Yes, it's the rags-to-riches tale of the Seasons' origins, struggles, bickerings, and their breathtaking success. But from the outset, those rags are begrimed with Jersey vulgarity: Valli's musical mentor, Tommy DeVito, introduces Frankie to petty crime before doing a stretch in the slammer and hooks him up with the mob afterwards.

Stage director Des McAnuff deftly makes the most of scenic designer Klara Zieglerova's generic rock concert scaffolding, and in Michael Clark's pop-art projection design, I discerned a feeble effort to stylize the production -- and a lame effort at theming the show with a sequence of slides that shift us from spring to summer to fall to winter. But the most effective seasoning remains the Italian seasoning. Along with liberal doses of profanity, folk wisdom, mobspeak, and a mob scam, we savor a bluntness so raw and rude and Jersey that it's hard to tell whether or not the humor is intended.

As when Frankie's future wife tells him to change the spelling of his stage name because "y is such a bullshit letter."

Even more shocking to me than the appeal of the story were the transformative effects of Ron Melrose's conducting, pushing the tempos, and Steve Orich's orchestrations, beefing up the music with the muscle of a brassy Broadway band. Still, I wondered whether the magic would repeat when we walked in on the touring version last week at Belk Theater.

Give the edge to the folks at Belk Theater for audience enthusiasm, the sell-out house of 1,800+ sounding far more worshipful than the smaller crowd up at the August Wilson whenever the band struck up the Four Seasons' biggies. The true believers who have bought out this 23-performance run of Jersey Boys should be every bit as blissful as Sue was on her second go-round. Up in New York, we didn't exactly see the A-team nearly four years into the run. Even then, we saw Cory Grant, the fill-in at Wednesday and Saturday matinees for Jarrod Spector, the third of the top-billed Vallis since the show opened in 2005.

On Tuesday, we didn't see the evening Valli or the matinee Valli. Instead, we saw the first-string Joe Pesci, Courter Simmons, who understudies the two leads. He still wowed the Charlotte audience.

But vocally, he didn't come close to matching Grant's brilliance as Frankie. Simmons strains a bit to reach Valli's falsetto peaks, and his scoops down into the lower notes of "Sherry" are the dregs, lacking the rich luster of the original 45. Of the remainder of the core four, only Ryan Jesse as Bob Gaudio was on a par with his Broadway counterpart. Matt Bailey, our first narrator, struggles all night deciding how much of a slimeball to be as DeVito, overdoing it early on and turning it too far down in Act 2. Steve Gouveia, a member of the ensemble in the original Broadway production, has risen in the ranks on the road, now regularly playing Nick Massi, the most subdued member of the group. Gouveia could win membership in the Soprano Family, so perfect is his Jersey suavity as group bon vivant, but as the bass in the quartet, he merely hits the low notes without booming them.

So during Act 1, when the music is so central to Frankie & Co. rising to their summery zenith -- and the top of the charts -- some of the enchantment I felt in New York was gone. But the magic was back in Act 2, where the story centers more on Valli's lifelong partnership (sealed with a Jersey handshake) with Gaudio, whose songwriting gifts catapulted the Four Seasons to international superstardom. The moment in Act 2 when Gaudio succeeds in lifting Valli back to #1 with "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," freeing him at last from the albatross of DeVito's misdeeds, was more moving in Charlotte than it was on 52nd Street.

Trust me, it's one of those special theatrical moments that is actually more powerful the second time around when you see it coming. When it's done right. I'll confess to being in tears, thanks to Jesse and Simmons.

Everything behind the Jersey fab four in this production is tight as a drum; especially Kara Tremel as Mary Delgado, Frankie's sassy plain-speaking wife; Joseph Stravo as avuncular mobster Gyp DeCarlo; and Jonathan Hadley as Bob Crewe, the boys' swishy record producer. Although the electric bass is potted to ghetto-blasting heights, conductor Andrew Wilder has the traveling orchestra righteously rocking.

Finally, three cheers for the clunky choreography of Sergio Trujillo. Mixed in with rudimentary doo-wop group moves, again and again the Four Seasons' signature look might be best described as four British public school boys, dressed in matching jackets, proudly marching in parade. No better reminder could be devised to underscore the basic absurdity of Valli's falsetto "Walk Like a Man." I'm sure some of the true believers were smiling as heartily as I was, remembering the folly of their youth.

Order will likely be restored by the time you read this, and either Joseph Leo Bwarie, the evening guy, or Graham Fenton will reclaim the role of Frankie. That should make Jersey Boys even more worthy of its worship.

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