OH, WHAT A MUSICAL! Yes, this lavish touring edition serves up a knock-your-socks-off quartet who really do sound like the Four Seasons.
It may not be December 1963, but oh what a night is Jersey Boys (at the Shubert Theatre through September 26) for boomers wishing to enjoy the soundtrack of their youth set against a mix of Forever Plaid and GoodFellas. With its tale of internecine loyalty and resentment among a hardscrabble quartet from the industrial badlands near Newark and its irresistibly tight white-boy harmonies, the 2006 Tony-winning musical chronicling the rise, fall, and resurrection of prolific pop group the Four Seasons is a well-put-together and well-executed if schematic affair that is head, shoulders, and string ties above most jukebox musicals. Rather than shoehorn their iconic songbook into Greek-island or Shakespeare-inspired fantasies, as Mamma Mia! and All Shook Up do, the book by Oscar winner Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice tells the rags-and-reformatory-to-rock-riches tale of the original Four Seasons, its narrative ball passed among them. And just as the still-running Broadway production is reported to do, the lavish touring edition serves up a knock-your-socks-off quartet who really do sound like the Four Seasons, from Joseph Leo Bwarie's channeling of Frankie Valli's unearthly falsetto to Steve Gouveia's gargling of the goofy bass interpolations of "silly girl" into "Big Girls Don't Cry."
For a show that is overall more efficient than original, Jersey Boys gets off to a disarming start, with a French rapper and punk-clad female back-up trio making their sultry hip-hop way through "Ces soirées-là," the 21st-century Paris-chart-topping cover of the Seasons' "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)." Then from out of a chain-link-and-catwalk environ gussied up by projections that look like the love children of Roy Lichtenstein and True Romance comics swaggers Matt Bailey as Tommy De Vito, the burgeoning group's relentlessly cocky and financially disastrous ringleader, to tell how it all began — with a guitarist and bassist who revolved through the doors of the neighborhood slammer he calls the Rahway Academy of the Arts and a kid from the neighborhood who "sang like an angel and hung around the clubs." That would be Francis Castelluccio, soon to be Frankie Valli. (Soon and forever: the real McCoy plays Boston November 7.)
The first 40 minutes are a bit of a tease, with the struggling vocal group ricocheting among monikers and playing low-rent venues where they cover earlier hits from "Silhouettes on the Shade" to "Earth Angel," their robotic moves as coordinated as their matching jackets. Enter Bronx-bred Bob Gaudio (Josh Franklin), the one-hit wonder who penned "Short Shorts" at 15 and who, upon hearing Valli apply his near-soprano ornaments to "Cry for Me," declares he must write for "that voice." The first mega-hit meshing of Gaudio's tunesmithery with Valli's tonsils is the 1962 smash "Sherry"; it's followed in quick succession, in the show as in life, by "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk like a Man." Jersey Boys is off and running.
And director Des McAnuff (The Who's Tommy) keeps it running like a 1962 Chevy fueled by some irresistible pop tunes — the lion's share recorded between 1962 and 1967 — and some ethanol-like infusions of emotion, among them Bwarie's lush, aching rendition of the 1974 "My Eyes Adored You," here pushed back a few years to reflect on the break-up of Valli's early marriage to Mary Delgado. (Cheesier is the application of "December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" to Gaudio's on-the-road defloration.) Choreographer Sergio Trujillo's amalgamation of standard '60s finger snapping and mic tipping with some very sharp footwork is as slick as McAnuff's direction. But what carries the production are the chops and the vitality of the young performers so uncannily replicating the Seasons. In a coda tied to the original quartet's triumphant 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Valli describes himself as the Energizer Bunny. But the veteran crooner has nothing on these hustling, heartfelt imitators.