Know how to tell a high-class Italian restaurant from a dump? "They don't sell slices." That, plus other nuggets of wisdom, is now available because the uber-popular jukebox musical Jersey Boys has landed again at Playhouse Square.
The melodies rattled off by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons still have that familiar glow. The production is as slick and smooth as ever, spinning out the story of some rough-around-the-edges (okay, ex-convict) young men who happen to make some of the most memorable music from the mid-'60s.
But there is a level of effervescence and electricity that's missing from this touring troupe. The problem lies with a lead singer who doesn't quite soar, as well as a general lack of comradeship and tension among the various Seasons.
True to the usual MTV script of a band struggling to find its distinctive sound, ramrod risk-taker Tommy DeVito, passive dreamer Nick Massi and falsetto Frankie bounce from one dirtbag club to another, constantly changing the group's focus, not to mention their name (the Travelers, the Four Lovers, the Romans, etc.). Of course, there are interludes when one or more of the fellows is locked up in prison, the "Rahway Academy of the Arts," after seeking ancillary income from various illegal activities.
But when Bob Gaudio, the precocious 15-year-old songwriter of the hit "Short Shorts" hears Frankie hit the high notes on stage, Gaudio decides to join the happy band of crooning felons. Around the same time, the boys are hanging out at a bowling alley that has a partially burnt-out sign that appears to say "OUR SONS." But when an electrician finally fixes it, and it lights up as "FOUR SEASONS," the guys have an epiphany ("It's a sign!") and discover their permanent moniker.
Much of the sound of the Four Seasons can be attributed to producer Bob Crewe, a man given to astrological readings and blunt assessments of the boys' music. As performed by Barry Anderson, Crewe is an amusing bundle of histrionic quirks, but he's indisputably a genuine music maven.
Gaudio starts by writing a song that shows off Valli's extraordinary pipes to maximum effect. Once the guys record "Sherry," it becomes a No.1 hit. And when they follow it up with two more monsters ("Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man"), the group is on its trajectory to stardom. Naturally, the loose canon Tommy (played with an appropriately short fuse by Nicolas Dromard) finds a way to get himself sunk deep in debt, and eventually the others decide to bail him out of a more than a $.5 million hole (that was real money back in the day).
Then there are the personal issues the boys face, including an unspeakable tragedy within Frankie's family. Eventually Valli starts a solo career with the international sensation, "My Eyes Adored You." By utilizing live video recording along with archival video and cartoon graphics, the production moves through all these stories with seamless efficiency.
Quinn VanAntwerp returns to town as Gaudio and still manages to capture some of that very young man's innocence, even if the actor's receding hairline sends a different signal. And Adam Zelasko gets some laughs as the deadpan Massi, although his bass singing feels a bit thin and unsupported.
In the central and unforgiving role of Valli, Hayden Milanes gives it his best shot. But he doesn't possess the true, pure falsetto of Joseph Leo Bwarie, who played this role in at least two previous companies that visited here. As a result, those magical high notes don't quite pierce the heart as they have in the past.
But if you love these tunes, this version of Jersey Boys will bring memories flooding back. There just may be a few goose bumps missing.
Jersey boys: Through May 18, 1615 Euclid Ave., 216-241-6000, playhousesquare.org.
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