'Jersey Boys': Still holding on to what they've got

National tour of 2005 musical reaches Baltimore in fresh form

February 05, 2011|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Just before the final number in "Jersey Boys," the character of Frankie Valli recalls the old days with his buddies and "the first time we made that sound — our sound." By this point in the hit musical about the Four Seasons, a lot has happened to the pop group's original members.

But Valli holds on to the intense memory of those first days when the music was all that mattered. "That was the best," he says. "That's why I'm still going out there singing — like that bunny on TV with the battery. I just keep going and going and going."

So does "Jersey Boys." The show is at five years and counting on Broadway. It has enjoyed extended runs in London and Las Vegas; it's big Down Under. And the national touring production has played in a long list of cities that, at last, includes Baltimore.

The seasoned, instantly likable cast appearing at the Hippodrome (mostly the same one that brought down the house at the National Theater in Washington in 2009) makes plain what all the fuss is about.

"Jersey Boys" manages the neat trick of packaging aural comfort food with a workable storyline. It helps, of course, that so many interesting, even drama-rich, things happened to these high school dropouts as they carved out a niche for themselves in the American music biz. There are mobsters hovering around the edges, ego-sapping gigs in tiny towns, the odd night in jail, myopic record companies slamming doors, floozies flopping in and out.

Even the tired narration device in the show pays off. Writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice use it to let each of the major players connect in increasingly substantive ways to the audience.

High and low points in the careers of Valli and the Four Seasons are acted out with sufficient detail and finesse to make you feel you've really gotten to know them by the end. Klara Zieglerova's set facilitates the process with a versatile performing space and just enough props to set scenes as needed (Roy Lichtenstein-like pop art cleverly demarcates chapters of the story).

Although there are certain surefire elements in "Jersey Boys" — an awful lot of the songs in this jukebox musical are embedded in the consciousness of an awful lot of boomers — it needs performers who can keep the material fresh and involving. The touring company delivers.

Joseph Leo Bwarie creates a three-dimensional Valli in deft strokes. You sense easily the eager kid at the start, the determined, talented and flawed grown-up later on. Bwarie can sing, too. He negotiates Valli's trademark falsetto without tonal edginess, and when he slips into normal register, he croons very engagingly. His account of "My Eyes Adored You" is a standout.

As Tommy DeVito would be the first to tell you, there would be no Frankie, no Seasons without him. There almost was no Frankie, no Seasons with him, too. The de factor bad guy in the plot, DeVito gives the show quite a charming rascal, a role that Matt Bailey tackles with terrific swagger and great timing.

Quinn Vanantwerp might not look much like an Italian kid from Jersey, but he gives a winning performance as Bob Gaudio, the songwriting force behind so many hits. Steve Gouveia is remarkably adept at fleshing out the role of Nick Massi, the fastidious, withdrawn one in the group who eventually faces the question of what to do "if there's four guys, and you're Ringo."

The rest of the cast does sturdy, dynamic work. Jonathan Hadley could dispense with the flapping wrists and still convey that songwriter/record producer Bob Crewe didn't play for the same team as the boys in the band, but the actor is a bright light in the production. So is Kara Tremel as Mary Delgado. A tight ensemble of instrumentalists provides a consistently potent musical foundation.

Even folks who don't know "Jersey Boys" from "Jersey Shore" are apt to be swept into the show, with its old-fashioned messages about loyalty and identity, responsibility and freedom tucked inside. The work does not take the Broadway musical genre to fresh heights, but it does what it set out to do —celebrate a slew of chart-climbers from the '60s and '70s and tell the true tales behind them to entertaining effect.

tim.smith@baltsun.com

If you go

"Jersey Boys" runs through Feb. 27 at the Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St. $27-$137 (plus fees). Call 410-547-7328 or go to ticketmaster.com.

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