Broadway Series South
Progress Energy Center
Through July 18
What makes jukebox musicals soooo temptingand yet so rarely worth it? If their creators haven’t padded on the extra verses and reprises while skimping on the narrative thread (think Smokey Joe’s Cafe), their apotheosis of a particular singer, band or songwriter summons all of the veritas and critical insight of, say, a cover story for Tiger Beat. Should a show actually cover those bases, then either the singers don’t sound or look enough like the originals, or we find we’re just not as obsessed with the subject as the die-hard fans for whom the work was apparently written.
So I’ll admit my expectations for the touring version of Jersey Boys weren’t high, even though the original counts among its bona fides a continuing three-and-a-half-year run on Broadway and a bevy of awards, including the 2006 Tony for best musical. Besides, my most vivid childhood memory of The Four Seasons involves Frankie Valli’s overamplified falsetto drilling the lyrics “they don’t cry-ee-eye-ee-eye” into my skull from my cousin’s painfully lo-fi hi-fi during several hellish babysitting episodes. In short, not only was I not this show’s target audience, a part of me was actually dreading it a bit.
Shows what I know. For the production now onstage at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium is a canny, streamlined and extremely efficient little entertainment, one that’s managed to nimbly avoid most of the pitfalls of the genre while navigating what it freely admits is the broken pavement of a pop group’s hardly inevitable rise to stardom.
There’s no shortage of dramatic tension, since Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book actually emphasizes the disagreements among the original band members. (Forget the scriptthe contract negotiations among these quarrelsome musicians must have been a diplomatic work of art.) Ultimately, each of the characters based on an original band member has his say, as the work weaves narrative and music sequences together. The show wisely omits repeated choruses and verses in several songs to maintain the undeniable propulsion that powers Jersey Boys through its impressive first act.
Ron Melrose’s musical direction here is first-rate throughout: The group’s harmonies are spot-on, even with some roughness in Steve Gouveia’s bass as Nick Massi. As Valli, Joseph Leo Bwarie’s icy-hot intensity nails the high notes and warms to more soulful crooning in “Sunday Kind of Love” and “My Eyes Adored You.” Matt Bailey stands out as a sharky, streetwise Tommy DeVito, who sneers his way through songs like “Apple of My Eye” before Josh Franklin’s turn as whiz kid and, ultimately, stand-up guy Bob Gaudio.
Twice we feel manipulated by this show. In the second act, it stoops to jerk tears from the death of Valli’s daughter, Francine, during a mawkish “Fallen Angel.” But before that, less forgiveably, Gaudio notes with pride that this band wasn’t “a social movement like the Beatles. Our fans didn’t put flowers in their hair and try to levitate the Pentagon. Our people were the guys who were shipped overseas, and their sweethearts … the factory workers, the truck drivers … the kids pumping gas, flipping burgers … the pretty girl with circles under her eyes behind the counter at the diner.” It’s poetic writingand a pretty succinct explanation of the band’s ultimate slide into irrelevance as the turbulence of the 1960s and early ’70s grew.
Then there’s the emphasis Jersey Boys gives to the gay flamboyance of record producer Bob Crewe. This is particularly striking, given that the leader of this quartet of hoodlums sang about how hard it was to be, or walk, like a man, in a perfect falsetto.