Jersey Boys at the Arsht: Goodfellas in a jukebox

Don't dismiss Jersey Boys, now playing at the Arsht Center, as another Broadway musical dressed up as one of those oldies revivals your parents or grandparents go to. It's one of those shows that leaves Four Seasons songs stuck in your head long after it's over. By any measure, Jersey Boys is a highly entertaining, toe-tapping, Top 40-drenched reverie that pulls the audience in and doesn't let go until the final standing ovation.

A cursory glance might leave the impression that it is just a silly musical with four guys wearing red blazers, dancing in unison, and singing doo-wop numbers for four hours. But the true biography of the pop-rock group seems to have been tailor-made for a Broadway musical, if not a Hollywood film (which is in the works).

The two-act show tells the true story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, four blue-collar boys who rise out of obscurity from the tough Italian-American streets of Belleville, New Jersey, to become one of the most successful pop groups in rock 'n' roll history. The central theme of the show, chronologically detailing the band's rise and fall, is pretty universal. We've seen it in countless films, stage productions, and on every VH1 Behind the Music episode. There's the hunger for fame, the struggle to be discovered, the money, the women, the drugs, the inevitable consequences of living the pop star life, and the eventual breakup. But what separates the Four Seasons' story from others are the colorful characters who enter their world. That and the group's uncanny ability to spew out hit after hit in a career that spans 40 years.

Growing up in Belleville in the 1960s almost guaranteed relationships with local gangsters. Gyp DeCarlo (played with Paul Sorvino-esque flair by Joseph Sivaro) is a constant presence in the neighborhood. DeCarlo was a member of the Genovese crime family in the '60s and was the mobster whom many tied to Frank Sinatra's connections with organized crime. DeCarlo is an early fan of the group, helps Valli "get rid of" some two-bit hustlers who steal his car, and even bails the foursome out of debt.

Although the centerpiece of the story is Frankie Valli, the real star of the show is guitarist Tommy DeVito (played marvelously by Matt Bailey), the wisecrackin' kid with a long rap sheet and quick temper. It's DeVito's street smarts and ties with shady mob types such as DeCarlo and various underworld loan sharks that get the wheels turning for the group. It's also DeVito's childhood buddy Joe Pesci (yes, that Joe Pesci) who introduces the group to Bob Gaudio, the talented pianist and songwriter who would eventually compose numerous chart toppers for the group. Jersey Boys is pretty much Goodfellas in a jukebox, and it works splendidly.

The show is broken up into four sections (Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter — seasons, get it?) as each member of the group narrates the band's story through 40 years of triumph, turmoil, and a seemingly endless string of hits.

With Gaudio onboard and Valli entrenched as the frontman with his unmistakable falsetto voice ("That kid with the angel's voice," as DeVito puts it), the Four Seasons rise to success through a hat trick of back-to-back number one hits ("Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man") and then deal with their inevitable struggle with fame, their downfall, and their eventual triumph as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees.

The boys become victims of their own naiveté when they enter the seductive world of fame and fortune. The good times and chirpy songs hide the trouble brewing beneath the surface. The audience gets a glimpse of it during one of the better scenes, when the band performs in a concert hall. The actors' backs are to us while white-hot lights blaze down on the band and the audience. In that brief moment, we feel what it's like to perform onstage to a throng of adoring fans. But when the lights dim and the bandmates run backstage, the strain between them is evident. Soon after, they're confronted with skyrocketing debt to loan sharks and the IRS. Fame ain't all it's cracked up to be.

It's the dark turn in the second act that makes Jersey Boys tick. Valli can't hold his marriage together, DeVito's dangerously distressing mismanagement of funds catches up with the group, and the once inseparable and steadfast friendships among the four become strained. The spotlight, the fans, the money, and the fame can't stop the group from derailing. Yet even as they deal with the turmoil, Gaudio is still able to churn out hits such as "Oh What a Night," "My Eyes Adored You," and "Dawn (Go Away)." The songs are interwoven into the production, and the stories behind some of the tunes make for interesting trivia fodder, such as Gaudio's inspiration for "Big Girls Don't Cry" and the incredibly disconcerting story of how "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" almost didn't get released.

Directed by two-time Tony Award winner Des McAnuff, written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, Jersey Boys moves at a crisp, enjoyable pace. The design and production team of Klara Ziegerova, Howell Binkley, and Michael Clark has a fantastic flair for set pieces. One of the standouts is the use of big-screen monitors dressed as TV sets; the group's appearance on shows such as American Bandstand (re-enacted by the actors onstage) is simulcast on the screens and mixed with original footage of teenyboppers in the studio audience.

Joseph Leo Bwarie puts in a star-making performance as Valli. Not only is Bwarie a remarkable doppelganger, but also his voice truly dominates the production. He has the task of mimicking Valli's unique vocals as well as turning in some gut-wrenching scenes when Valli's life spirals into dark places. Bwarie does it all flawlessly.

The Four Seasons' ups and downs — as well as the elaborate set pieces, the humor, and the band's universally recognizable hits performed throughout — make for an all-around entertaining show. Even if you're not into the whole doo-wop thing, Jersey Boys will hit the right note.

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Chris Joseph

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