If you're still mourning the loss of Paulie Walnuts, the Bada Bing, and acid-tongued Adriana, you can get a bit of that feeling back — along with a hell of a lot of great music — in Jersey Boys at Playhouse Square Center. This touring production is as tight as Frankie Valli's falsetto-stretched vocal cords, and the visceral reaction it provokes in an audience is truly amazing.
With a surprisingly clever book written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, the jukebox show follows the standard "behind the music" story arc. It shows how four kids from the streets of New Joisey made it big as a monster 1960s hit-making machine called the Four Seasons, but suffered some major personal setbacks along the way.
What sets this production apart from other yawn-inducing musical biographies is the syncopated staging and the crooning talent of the key band members. Familiar tunes such as "Sherry" and "Walk Like a Man" are intercut with snippets of dialogue that advance the story while never losing the driving momentum of the music.
In this way, we learn how part-time hoods Tommy DeVito (superbly rendered by Erik Bates) and Nick Massi (an engaging but at times vocally challenged Steve Gouveia) brought young Frankie Valli into their struggling singing group. Playing bowling alleys for loose change, they don't hit it big until they hook up with Bob Gaudio, a teenage music phenom who wrote "Who Wears Short Shorts?" at age 15.
Mobsters are never far from the center of this tale, as the boys start racking up hits while Tommy plunges deeper in debt. The seamless presentation displays the rough side of Jersey life, as Frankie's first love Mary can go toe-to-toe with him in profanity-laced interchanges. But the music written by Gaudio, with lyrics by an unseen Bob Crewe, keeps the memories flowing.
Joseph Leo Bwarie makes his voice soar as Frankie, conveying the special nature of Valli's talent without attempting a vocal impersonation. And Andrew Rannells' preppy good looks as the initially naive but very smart Gaudio establish the perfect counterpoint to his bandmates' felonious personas.
Directed by Des McAnuff, Boys harnesses both the thrills and the innocence of the time ("We thought Liberace was just a little . . . theatrical"), and transmits it unfiltered to the audience.