DETROIT -- The Four Seasons may be the all-American pop group, but the first words we hear in "Jersey Boys" -- the revelatory stage biography of Frankie Valli and company now playing at the Fisher Theatre -- are...French.
It's "Ces Soirees-La," the 2000 recast of the Four Seasons' 1975 smash "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)." The group's Tommy DeVito (Matt Bailey) then comes on to tells us that the single topped the charts in France, a mark of his group's enduring appeal. "I don't want to seem, uh, ubiquitous," DeVito says, "but, let's face it -- we put (New) Jersey on the map."
Frank Sinatra might beg to differ, of course, but the truth is the Four Seasons are quiet superstars in the pop pantheon. The numbers are beyond impressive: 175 million records sold worldwide, 30 Top 40 hits -- along with five No. 1's, including the quartet's first three singles -- and inductions into the Rock and Roll and Vocal Group hall of fames. Yet the arrival of the British Invasion and the broadening scope of rock music in the mid-'60s subsumed the Four Seasons' accomplishments, even as the band and producer Bob Crew (Jonathan Hadley) continued to create ambitious music that pushed pop's parameters both sonically and conceptually.
But with a ferocious cast, dynamic staging and powerhouse lineup of songs, you leave "Jersey Boys" feeling like the Four Seasons were the Best Group Ever -- or at least feeling in tune with a legacy that well deserves the new regard the musical's Tony Award-winning success has yielded.
We watch the group go from Newark rags to worldwide riches through the eyes of the members, with each Four Season taking a turn to tell the tale -- with its ties to organized crime, financial disarray, ego battles and family tragedies -- from his particular perspectives. The actors' characterizations are rich, their subtle facial and physical reactions compensations fleshing out any holes left by a script that doesn't consistently ring with emotional pathos. We don't necessarily find ourselves caring that DeVito's financial recklessness put the group $1 million in the hole, for instance, but through Bailey's multi-dimensional portrayal we do appreciate him as the group's dedicated early driving force as well as a careless opportunist.
And while the late Nick Massi's departure from the group doesn't resonate as particularly devastating for the audience, original Broadway cast member Steve Gouveia has imprinted Massi's talent and passion on the role so that we understand how it affected the rest of the group.
Joseph Leo Bwarie, from the "Jersey Boys' " Las Vegas cast, has a dead-on voice as Valli and carefully develops the character from a wide-eyed, DeVito-worshipping 16-year-old into a confident star and devoted friend and bandmate. And Josh Franklin is just as enveloping as Bob Gaudio, the Four Seasons' composer and keyboardist, playing him as quietly cocky -- he does declare "It wouldn't have happened without...me!" towards the end of the show -- but visionary.
"Jersey Boys' " stage, meanwhile, acts as a fifth character with set pieces briskly wheeled on and off to take us everywhere from the street corner to nightclubs to recording studios. A pair of TV performances -- on "American Bandstand" and "The Ed Sullivan Show" -- are particularly clever, with the live audience watching side-view as the Four Seasons perform for the cameras, whose head-on images are projected on a screen above the stage. A sequence about the difficult promotion of Valli's 1967 solo hit "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" is also illuminating, hopping from record company office to radio station to, we're told, Detroit's Roostertail nightclub as the "strange" song becomes a record-breaking hit.
Despite the adversities, "Jersey Boys" -- which ends with the group's bittersweet reunion for its 1990 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction -- puts a rightfully triumphant spin on the Four Seasons story. It's a feel-good and sounds-good celebration in which the music matters most and the production does justice to its makers.
"Jersey Boys" shows through Jan. 23 at the Fisher Theatre, 3011 W. Grand Blvd., Detroit. For showtimes and ticket prices, call (313) 872-1000 or visit www.broadwayindetroit.com.
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