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By BERNIE BELLAN

What do you get when you combine the creative genius of one of America’s most popular singing groups of all time with that of two of America’s best stage musical writers?

 

You get fabulous music with snappy, clever, and often quite poignant dialogue – which is what “Jersey Boys” has to offer.

Now on at the Centennial Concert Hall until May 31, “Jersey Boys” tells the story of the Four Seasons – a group of Italian-American guys who grew up on the tough streets of  Newark, New Jersey where, paraphrasing the words of Bob Gaudio, you had three choices in life: “You could join the army, you could get ‘mobbed up’, or you could escape by having some singing talent.”

What “Jersey Boys” does is not only allow audience members to hear so many great hits once again (and the most oft heard comment at intermission was: “I didn’t know the Four Seasons had so many hits.”), it also tells a terrific story.

I had the opportunity to interview Rick Elice, one of the writers of “Jersey Boys” (along with Marshall Brickman) a couple of weeks ago. Elice explained to me how he and Brickman wrestled with the challenge how best to tell the story of hhow the group became so successful. Eventually they hit on the idea of using different voices to offer alternative explanations of what made four guys who struggled for so long to climb out of what was really quite a mediocre start to their respective careers.

And it’s the telling of that story that transfixes audiences. Using the kind of innovative sets that, by now, we’ve come to expect from Broadway touring shows, scenes flow effortlessly one into another as we watch the first three members of what was to become the Four  Seasons (Frankie Valli, Nick Massi, and Tommy DeVito) struggle not only to give a kick-start to their performing careers, also to avoid a constant series of arrests and jail time, primarily for “b & e’s” (breaking and entering).

At one point in the first act, when the show parades a succession of early Jersey Boys hits, it’s impossible not to be thoroughly uplifted. Beginning with their first big hit as a group – “Sherry”, followed by “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, then “Walk Like a Man”, and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”, you can see the progression in the music writing talents of the fourth – and final member of the group, Bob Gaudio. The first act ends with a tremendous reprise of “Walk Like a Man” and everyone who headed to the foyer seemed to be riding quite a high.

 But “Jersey Boys” isn’t all an upward climb to nirvana. The second act reveals the spiral of difficulties in which the members of the group unfortunately found themselves – mostly due to the incredibly irresponsible behaviour of Tommy DeVito, by the way (who has no trouble admitting to his perfidy and apparently is still as candid about his sins to this day).

The dialogue in the second act is often raw and unflinching as the group’s members fight – and eventually split apart. As a matter of fact, there is no shortage of expletives during the entire course of this show. You really feel the grit that underlay growing up Italian in 1950s New Jersey.

As one would expect from a Broadway show, the singing and musical accompaniment is astoundingly good. What can one say about Hayden Milanes, who plays Frankie Valli – he of the almost four-octave range? To be able to do a perfect impersonation of as legendary a singer as Frankie Valli is no mean feat. One problem with this show though: So many of the Four Seasons’ songs are so infectious that those catchy musical hooks known as “earworms” are bound to make their way into your brain long after the show is over. Don’t be surprised if you end up dreaming Four Seasons songs or have them enter into your mind at unexpected moments. But that’s a problem that most of us love to have!