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Theater

Mobsters, music ... and magic

Its Jersey Boys at the Fisher Theatre!

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Published 12/23/2009

It took a long time for Jersey Boys, the Tony-winning Broadway musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, to finally hit Detroit — four years after its Broadway debut, to be exact, and three years after its first touring company hit the road. Often when a touring production is already this long in the tooth, audiences can expect a somewhat watered-down version of the original. But, happily, the Jersey Boys currently at the Fisher is a triumphant theatrical (and pop music) experience, in some ways better than the production this critic saw in Los Angeles two-and-a-half years ago.

Jersey Boys is a rare successful "jukebox musical" because, unlike all the others in that weak genre (including flops that used the music of Elvis, John Lennon and the Beach Boys), this one actually tells the story of the band whose music is being performed onstage and not some ridiculous, meaningless fantasy built around the songs. And what a great story it is!

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the tale is that if not for music, the four guys who became the Four Lovers and then the Four Seasons probably would've ended up like the hoods on The Sopranos (Frankie Valli did have a recurring role on that show, after all). In fact, founding member and guitarist Tommy DeVito (played by Matt Bailey) still ran with — and became seriously indebted to — New Jersey's organized crime crew even after the band was scoring hit single after hit single, something they remarkably continued to do even after the arrival of the Beatles. Joe Pesci is also a character in this story — yes, "that Joe Pesci," which is how he's described when the actor playing him (Courter Simmons) makes the first of several onstage appearances as the teenage gofer who first brings songwriter-keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Josh Franklin) to the group's attention. (It's not mentioned in the play, but Pesci's Academy Award-winning thug in the movie Goodfellas was named "Tommy DeVito" as an intentional homage to the man who was one of Pesci's early mentors and who was eventually "banished" to Las Vegas by the mob and forced to leave the Four Seasons due to gambling and loan shark debts.)

Who'd have ever thought this was part of their history back when the Four Seasons were one of the cleanest-cut of all hit-making rock bands of the era? And it was precisely that lack of "hipness" that may have affected their legacy and place in rock history at times over the years — their audience is described in the show as primarily members of the "unhip" blue-collar silent majority and the kids who got sent to Vietnam (even though that's not totally true; the Rolling Stones, for instance, called the Four Seasons their favorite American band in several 1965 interviews).

But the music was always strong, image be damned, right down to that glorious seminal buzztone guitar riff that loudly kicks off "Let's Hang On." Big girls may not cry and big boys may not sing like that much anymore — but the Four Seasons were the grand culmination of the doo-wop tradition, merged with the newfangled BIG! production techniques of Phil Spector and, simultaneously, Brian Wilson (who once told this writer that the Seasons were "the East Coast Beach Boys" and the creator of "some great records"). Composer Gaudio and producer Bob Crewe created some of rock's first mini street operas dealing with the American "underclass"; it was no coincidence that a latter-day Jersey boy named Springsteen would title one of his own songs "Walk Like a Man." In other words, the music is still great and it resonates, without a taint of nostalgia, throughout Jersey Boys.

Detroit also figures prominently in two of the show's major plot points ... and that's without even mentioning that the band briefly recorded for Motown Records. The first is that Valli's second great love, Lorraine, was a reporter for a now-defunct Detroit newspaper and the couple met during an interview in the Motor City. And then later, during a weeklong Four Seasons gig at the Roostertail, Valli and Gaudio convinced a CKLW programmer to play "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," the Valli solo hit that would explode out of Detroit, launching the singer from "teen idol" into the "adult" market. (Another trivia point connected to Michigan that isn't mentioned in the show but is no less important is that producer Crewe was also the guy who transformed a local garage band called Billy Lee & the Rivieras into Mitch Ryder & the Detroit Wheels in 1965, taking them to national stardom before he later urged Ryder to pursue an ill-advised solo career.)

What makes the Fisher production especially grand, however, is the casting of Joseph Leo Bwarie as Valli. It's impossible for anyone to sound just like Frankie Valli, of course — those are some of the most unique pipes in the history of pop. But Bwarie sounds as good as, if not better than, John Lloyd Young, the actor who originated the role in New York and took home a Tony for it. He's definitely stronger than the Valli in the L.A. production. And, hey, if you've got a great Frankie Valli in your production of Jersey Boys, that's half the battle, no?

If, like many fans, you've seen this show more than once in different cities, you're apt to have different reactions to different portrayals. Bailey's DeVito, for instance, didn't seem to have as much Italian machismo as I was perhaps expecting. And Jonathan Hadley's take on Crewe, one of the first openly gay men in rock, was definitely less hilariously flamboyant than the one I saw in L.A. Both actors are still very good, mind you, just different. But Franklin is perfect as unassuming musical pop genius Gaudio, while Steve Gouveia as bassist Nick Massi, the "Ringo of the group" (as he describes himself), is also perfect and simply outstanding as a guy who never appeared all that outstanding, often fading into the background and then obscurity, in real life.

Bottom line: Jersey Boys is a great show, full of great fun. It never taxes the audience's intelligence like so many other recent Broadway spectacles. And it's full of great music, especially after the midpoint of the first act when all those Bob Gaudio hits kick in. What's not to love?

Jersey Boys plays through Saturday, Jan. 23, at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit; 313-872-1000. Go to broadwayindetroit.com for a full schedule, tickets, and more info.

Bill Holdship is music editor of Metro Times. Send comments to mailto:letters@metrotimes.com.

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