By Bridgette M. Redman
“Jersey Boys” was so on fire Friday evening at the Wharton Center that they almost got a standing ovation midway through the second act.
Joseph Leo Bwarie was electrifying in his portrayal of Frankie Valli, capturing the distinctive voice with chilling accuracy, especially when singing “I Only Have Eyes for You.”
“Jersey Boys” is stocked full of the all-American songs that defined the ’60s, playing hit after hit in a jukebox manner that aims for and hits the pinnacle of that musical genre. It surrounds each song with the story of The Four Seasons, their lives and their songs. It creates a story arc out of reality with beautiful attention to themes and staging. It is, in other words, a perfect night of theater.
Theater thrives when it pays attention to story, and “Jersey Boys” does just that. The story opens with Matt Bailey narrating as Tommy DeVito, with a heavy Jersey accent and rapid speech, beginning the tale with high energy on the streets of Jersey where life is rough and the language rougher. He takes credit for discovering Frankie and putting together the band that would win the hearts of blue collar and middle class music lovers from around the country. His narration is followed by the more intellectual Bob Guido, portrayed by Preston Truman Boyd. The story, divided into “seasons,” also shares the perspectives in turn of Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and Frankie.
Throughout the narration is woven the constant striving of each of the group to achieve their dreams despite loss and setback. While their hit-after-hit success might seem like a dream-come-true to “American Idol” devotees, the musical reveals that behind the scenes, life was still gritty and tough for the young men trying to make it off the streets.
It isn’t until the final quarter of the show that the story comes from Valli’s perspective, but it is his story throughout. Bwarie shows the growth in Valli from the innocent child who needs the protection of his street-smart friends, Tommy and Nick, to the loyal band leader who will risk everything for his friends, even when he can no longer count them as friends.
While the Jersey accents are thick, they are authentic and easy to follow. The only accent that did not work was that of the Motown producer. Perhaps it was what a non-Detroiter thinks Detroiters sound like, but it was not recognizable to this reviewer who grew up in Metro Detroit and has spent all but two years of her life in Michigan.
Klara Zieglerova’s set and director Des McAnuff’s use of that set provides the most powerful moments in establishing the sense of loss and grief, with Frankie watching as his loved ones take a long walk across the catwalk, always crossing from stage left to stage right, except when they make reappearances and reunions. The show stops short of being spectacle, but McAnuff and his designers make the most of lighting and set as they provide the audience with 360-degree views of the band performing.
Choreographer Sergio Trujillo captured the look of The Four Seasons in their early days, though the performers added an exuberance that was particularly apt for the stage.
And the music. Every song was woven perfectly into the story and performed with all the heart that made The Four Seasons a phenomenon in the first place. Bwarie’s falsetto, Lomendo’s bass and the perfect blending of the quartet that created a sound to make lovers sigh and teenagers dance. Nor did the audience need much prompting to play their role as the enthusiastic crowds hearing the group perform. The musical lasted two and a half hours, but time flew by with each familiar song flawed only in that it seemed too short.
The performers of “Jersey Boys,” in particular Bwarie, Bailey, Boyd and Lomendo, bring a well-rehearsed precision to their performances, which becomes most obvious in the scenes where video of the original performances are thrown up on big screens while they exactly imitate the moves below. Despite this precision, the show never feels stale or lacking in energy. There is an enthusiasm that makes the show fresh and exciting.
Wharton Center’s Cobb Great Hall at Michigan State University, East Lansing. Tuesday-Sunday through Oct. 16. $35 and up. 1-800-Wharton http://www.whartoncenter.com