Jersey Boys rocks at Playhouse Square

Oh What a Night 

Jersey Boys rocks at Playhouse Square

Rock and roll fans have long preferred their musical idols to have a touch of the bad boy in them, if not an actual rap sheet.

Of course, they also had to have the pipes to go along with the felony charges, and that's how the Four Seasons made their mark back in the day. Once again, those bad-boy Jersey Boys are at Playhouse Square to rock AARP members out of their seats while showing young folks how vocal groups in the '60s made the magic happen.

From the start, we watch as the group struggles to assemble its talent, with key members continually passing in and out of Rahway State Prison. But eventually they trade their B&E's for harmonies, and the legendary foursome is on its way.

Returning to the quartet for this run are two key members who were doing the doo-wop thing three years ago when the show first broke Playhouse Square box-office records. Joseph Leo Bwarie again scales the falsetto heights as lead singer Frankie Valli, and Steve Gouveia reprises the role of Nick Massi that he played on Broadway.

While this award-winning musical is cleverly constructed — with a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, music by Bob Gaudio, and lyrics by Bob Crewe — this production is more about the experience. As the familiar and infectious songs spill out, performed with gratifying attention to detail, the bond between the singers and the audience becomes palpable.

It's this live concert vibe, accompanied by rafter-shaking cheers, that turns a very skillful show into a visceral experience.

Interweaving snatches of songs with a series of quick scene changes, the early history of the group is sketched melodiously and mostly painlessly. There are plenty of gangster references ("Watch out, that's Joey Delgado; he'll send you home in an envelope!") as the young guys work their way though some scummy clubs and the occasional bowling alley lounge. In fact, it's from just such a lounge that the group borrows its now-famous moniker.

In particular, this production benefits from Matt Bailey as Tommy DeVito, the guitarist who brings Frankie into the group and tutors him on the subtleties of being a hard-knuckled New Jersey stud. DeVito is all swagger and snarl, and he draws a believable portrait of a young man with street smarts to burn but not enough intelligence to avoid screwing up his life.

Naturally, Frankie Valli is the center of all things when it comes to the Four Seasons, and Bwarie handles every aspect of this demanding role with panache. Equipped with a pure, silky falsetto, Bwarie hits all the highs in "Sherry" and "Walk Like a Man." And he absolutely nails the tender "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."

And when the part calls for some honest emoting, during a family tragedy in the second act, Bwarie conveys the emotion without going all Bobby Goldsboro on us.

The new face in the group, in real life and in this production, belongs to Quinn VanAntwerp as the über-talented songwriter Bob Gaudio. His addition to the Four Seasons made all the difference, and VanAntwerp captures Gaudio's innocence, especially in a comical scene where the teen loses his virginity ("Nick was right: It is better when you do it with another person!").

As Nick Massi, Gouveia has long mastered the slow burn and the deadpan take, which he uses to great comic effect. But his vocalized bass notes at times seemed fuzzy and tired, allowing a couple tunes to flounder a bit without a powerful low end.

Even though metal scaffolding as a set device is beginning to get fairly predictable in these touring shows, it works well here. The omnipresent chain-link fence and catwalk above lend a Newark back-alley look to the proceedings, which is appropriate since these guys never leave their Jersey roots far behind.

Someone once described downtown Newark as looking "like the inside of an old Philco radio." That may have been true, but the music that came out of that radio still wields a strange and hypnotic hold on audiences today.

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