Theater review: Jersey Boys

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It took nearly four years before my wife Sue — backed by recommendations from theaterfolk I trust — convinced me to make an effort to see Jersey Boys after it opened on Broadway. Needless to say, I’m not a fan of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. If the constant AM tattoo of “Tossin’ and Turnin’” hadn’t already soured me on Top 40 pabulum, I believe “Big Girls Don’t Cry” or “Rag Doll” might have done the trick.

So I was shocked to find how much theJersey Boys book by Marshall Brickman engaged me in the rise of Valli and his quartet to stardom and the trials he experienced after topping the pop charts. The Broadway treatment lavished upon the Bob Gaudio-Bob Crewe songbook by musical director/arranger Ron Melrose and orchestrator Steve Orich, quickening the tempos and pumping in percussion and brass, also helped to dispel the torture I was bracing for. Time has proven that only Mamma Mia! rivals this smash hit as the very best of the jukebox musical breed.

It was all artful and touching enough for me to be more than willing to greet the touring version of Jersey Boys when it first hit Charlotte in March 2010. No doubt Metrolina audiences shared my enthusiasm, for after a sellout 23-performance run the first time around, the diminutive Frankie is back for another sojourn, playing at Belk Theater through March 11.

A third dose? I’ll admit that I only went to please my Sue. But once again, the story pulled us in. There’s more Jersey to Tommy DeVito, the original group organizer, who introduces Frankie to petty crime at about the same time he puts the falsetto phenom onstage, and a lot more to like in John Gardiner’s cocky and punkish portrayal of DeVito than his inconsistent predecessor on tour. This Tommy is a true pain as he proceeds to do a stretch in the slammer, hook Frankie up with the mob, and weigh down the group with his massive gambling debts.

Since a third-string Frankie was served up to the press last time around, this was our first chance to sample Joseph Leo Bwarie in the lead. He doesn’t administer the “cry” in “Big Girls” with the customary hacking — a huge blessing in disguise for me — but his vocals are purest silk otherwise, and it’s a bonus treat for jazz lovers when he’s sneaking “Moody’s Mood for Love” into the score. As Frankie, Bwarie mixes steely determination and soft vulnerability to perfection under director Des McAnuff’s flawless guidance.

The other quartet members, Preston Truman Boyd as Gaudio and Michael Lomenda, don’t please me as much as the 2010 troubadours, but the gap isn’t wide. I was still fighting back the tears when Boyd, as Gaudio, bestows his valedictory gift on Frankie, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” lifting the DeVito albatross off his partner’s shoulders and launching him as a single act. Gaudio’s best song in my book.

Before that Act 2 climax, I felt the same old liftoff in Act 1 when the Four Seasons broke through with their first hit, “Sherry,” and I surrendered once again to the outright stupidity of “Walk Like a Man,” bedecked in its clunky, boyish and incurably white Sergio Trujillo choreography. Key supporting roles are as colorful as ever — played by the same folk whom we saw two years back. Joseph Siravo is still dapper in that distinctively sleazy Jersey manner as mobster Gyp DeCarlo, and Jonathan Hadley is as fey and gay as before as Crewe, an underdeveloped character considering all that he contributed to the Seasons’ success formula.

Kara Tremel seems a wee bit longer in the tooth as Frankie’s wife, Mary Delgado, smoking and boozing with equal aplomb when Valli first meets her in a bar and a couple of decades later at home in the kitchen when their teenage daughter is on the loose. There’s a little more mileage on her when they sit down for their first date and she first informs the younger Frankie that y is such a bullshit letter. So what you gonna do about it?

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