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Jersey Boys

This biomusical about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons works best as a highly appealing oldies concert.

J. Robert Spencer, John Lloyd Young, Daniel Reichard, and Christian Hoff
in Jersey Boys
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Yeah, sure. Go see Jersey Boys, subtitled "The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons." So what if the Des McAnuff production is so slick that you could slip on it and slide to an untimely end? Fuhgeddaboudit! It's got the Four Seasons songs, an astonishing string of melodic and melodramatic celebrations of adolescent emotion that make this show a highly appealing oldies concert. It pushes its broad-shouldered way into the theater as a better example of the currently ubiquitous "jukebox musical" form. Included for the delectation of baby-boomer fans and salivating others are commendable facsimiles of clicks that The Four Seasons released in the '60s and '70s, when supersonic-voiced Frankie Valli was at first just one of the boys and later was top-billed.

Largely responsible for making the non-stop parade of reprises irresistible is John Lloyd Young as Valli. The tousle-haired actor, who looks enough like the man he's playing to be his younger brother, owns a train-whistle voice that isn't an exact replica of his predecessor's but is close enough. The tuneful tuner also features Christian Hoff as Four Seasons progenitor and trouble-maker Tommy DeVito, J. Robert Spencer as suave Nick Massi and Daniel Reichard as hit-tune-writing Bob Gaudio. The show has also got a band (conducted by Ron Melrose) playing Steve Orich orchestrations (John Miller, the music coordinator) that are awesomely true to the originals. Even blond Bob Crewe, who wrote most of the chart-topping group's lyrics (though you wouldn't know it from the musical's book) is on hand to sing in the person of the dark-haired Peter Gregus.

"Rag Doll," "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "Let's Hang On (To What We've Got)," "Dawn (Go Away)," "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," "Working My Way Back to You," "Oh What a Night" -- many of them by the golden-eared Crewe/Gaudio team -- are given Top 40 treatment. More often than not, the talented Four Seasons impersonators are planted behind mikes at the footlights so they can be greeted like the real thing by ecstatic audiences. (During one press performance, mention of a certain New Jersey town elicited boisterous response from a section of the auditorium.)

Late in this glittery paean to the Garden State lads, the on-stage Valli talks about being asked what career highlights he remembers and says, "When everything dropped away and all there was was the music -- that was the best." So it goes in Jersey Boys, which is another of McAnuff's seamless packages and is at its best when everything else but the music drops away. The rock-and-roll juggernaut moves speedily but doesn't necessarily dig too deep. The heavy metal (not in the musical sense) set by Klara Zieglerova, Howell Binkley's chiaroscuro lighting, Steve Canyon Kennedy's essential sound design, the shark-skin suit-heavy Jess Goldstein wardrobe, and the Michael Clark projections are suavely professional stuff -- particularly, Clark's projections on three large screens suspended high above the stage. They often feature Roy Lichtenstein-like, full-color drawings and are the giveaway to the nature of this finely calibrated enterprise. Lichtenstein was an ironist in paint, who regularly appropriated plummy comic-strip frames to mock human emotion and high art. By nodding so blatantly to him, McAnuff and librettists Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice tip their approach to the Four Seasons story. (Brickman is a sometime Woody Allen collaborator and a filmmaker in his own right; Elice has years of Serino Coyne marketing expertise on his resume.) Jersey Boys is a cartoon take on the lives of four big boys who didn't do too much crying but did have a few things about which they could weep.

Superficially, this biographical musical is candid about the behind-the-scenes stories of Valli, DeVito, Massi and Gaudio. A few small-time felonies are reported, along with Valli's volatile first marriage and DeVito's run-ins with a loan shark. There are depictions of seemingly unretouched internal flare-ups. (Has there ever been a hit-making group that got along swimmingly?) Into these lives some rain must fall, and many of the setbacks and contretemps and financial understandings are recorded in foul-mouthed, one-liner glory. But did they actually occur as Brickman and Elice present them in stage-bio shorthand? For instance, did DeVito and Massi really watch as the supposedly naive Gaudio lost his virginity to a party girl? Maybe so, maybe not.

Helping to establish verisimilitude are the cast members, helmed by McAnuff, who never seems to care for character as much as for seamless maneuvering of the show's mechanized elements. Hoff ladles on the wiseguy mannerisms more than seems absolutely necessary and Reichard may overdo Gaudio's innocence, but Young's Valli is wound up just right and Spencer is an attractively laid-back Nick Massi. Of the supporting players, Michael Longoria, who also leans heavily on the Italian mannerisms, stands out as a funny Joe Pesci. (Yes, that Joe Pesci.)

Despite its flaws, you can't beat this show with a stick. The multitudes of other-side-of-the-Hudson folks who for years have been gloating about having Giants Stadium and New York football teams on Meadowlands territory now have something else to gloat about: They've got Jersey Boys on Broadway, where it could remain for quite some time.