The pulsating musical Jersey Boys is back at the Fox for the second of what surely will be numerous visits. How is the show holding up after five years on the road? That's not even an issue; the production remains extraordinarily crisp. Of more immediate concern is whether or not any tickets will be available for this weekend's final performances.
Many a show has sought to evoke the bubblegum music era of the late 1950s and early '60s. But none has succeeded like this relentlessly energetic account of the rise, fall and reclamation of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, four New Jersey teenagers who were unprepared for the pressures of fame. What distinguishes Jersey Boys from similar musicals is its acute understanding of the story it's really telling. In its soul, and despite its subject matter, Jersey Boys is not really about a singing group; it is about a sound.
In fact, the real behind-the-scenes saga of the creation of the Four Seasons is much more labyrinthine than the simplified version told here. From 1956 to 1961, Valli and his group performed under thirteen different names (the Variatones, Frankie Love and the Four Lovers, Frankie Valle and the Romans, to name a few). Librettists Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice have adroitly managed to distill a complicated story down to its essence.
The first fifteen minutes are top-heavy with exposition. It's not until songwriter Bob Gaudio (the appealing Quinn VanAntwerp) joins the group that the evening finds its focus. When he hears Valli's amazing falsetto, Gaudio says, "After eight bars, I know I need to write for this voice." That one line provides Jersey Boys with its spine. The show kicks in when Gaudio auditions his new song "Cry for Me" for the group. By the time he's done, the other three members have joined in, and for the first time we hear this unique blend of voices. A few minutes later, when the quartet sings "Sherry," its first Billboard No. 1 hit, something wonderful happens. As soon as the song begins, every head in the Fox Theatre audience — man, woman and child alike — begins to sway. The sheer magic of that spontaneous moment unites performers and viewers. By the time the group sings "Walk Like a Man" a few minutes later, Jersey Boys can do no wrong.
Perhaps because the show is sure of itself, in Act Two the story travels into shadowy new directions. It explores themes of ego and vanity, disillusionment and recrimination. (There's so much going on here, Jersey Boys actually plays better on a repeat viewing.) Although the evening mostly moves at a fever pitch, director Des McAnuff is not afraid to slow things down in order to let the characters have at each other. Fortunately, these actors — each of whom narrates one-quarter of the evening — are ideally suited for their roles. In addition to the aforementioned VanAntwerp, Matt Bailey plays Tommy DeVito, who is the reason for the group's breakup. Steve Gouveia is Nick Massi, the quiet member who cannot explain even to himself why he wants to walk away from success. Joseph Leo Bwarie portrays Frankie Valli with the kind of reserve that actors need for great roles. Bwarie almost never leaves the stage, yet his performance becomes truer and more empathetic as the evening grows richer and deeper.
There's lots of credit to be shared here among the original creators and the current performers. But let us not forget the unknown people — be they stage managers or company managers or dance captains — who are keeping this show stiletto-sharp. Thanks to them, Jersey Boys remains a knockout theater experience.