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Years haven't exhausted 'Jersey Boys'

By Lawrence Toppman
ltoppman@charlotteobserver.com

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  • National tour of the musical about the ups and downs of the pop group from New Jersey swings back into town for three weeks.

    WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sundays through March 11. Also 2 p.m. Thursday and March 8.

    WHERE: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.

    RUNNING TIME: 165 minutes. Adult language.

    TICKETS: $35 to $135.

    DETAILS: 704-372-1000, www.carolinatix.org.



When a show tours for years with the same lead and many of the same actors in supporting parts, it usually goes in one of two directions: It sags and sprawls, as tired performers wring out another performance in yet another city, or it becomes a machine so well-oiled that it runs at top speed with near-relentless precision.

"Jersey Boys" is in group two. Joseph Leo Bwarie, whose low body and high falsetto make him ideal for the lead role of Frankie Valli, still has the plaintive personality and ringing voice that stood out on the tour's first visit to Belk Theater in winter 2010. (That's pretty incredible, as he'd already been doing the role for two years.)

Yet the show's quiet moments - admittedly, never its strongest selling points - have less impact in a version where the acting's a little broader, sped-up song tempos seem more breathless, jokes get delivered with a bit harder nudge to the ribs. You won't be cheated if this is your first "Jersey Boys," but nuances have been worn down by constant use.

The freshness comes from the three guys who surround Valli in the Four Seasons: John Gardiner as combative Tommy DeVito, Michael Lomenda as complacent Nick Massi (although his Joisey accent sounds forced) and especially Preston Truman Boyd as composer Bob Gaudio. Boyd, last seen at the Belk galumphing through "Young Frankenstein" as the monster, brings a calm to his monologues that helps to balance the frenetic pace.

On second viewing, the book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice doesn't seem as strong. It packs a remarkable amount of material into a musical of ordinary length: mob involvement, broken families, gambling, internal power struggles, the long rise to prominence on the charts.

Yet the show leaps too quickly from tragedy to triumph, moving from a drug overdose to an upbeat finale almost in a breath. Even allowing for hyperbole - "We put Jersey on the map!" crowsDeVito, conveniently forgetting Frank Sinatra - the comparison to the Beatles wildly overstates the importance of this group.

Other random observations from a second look:

Charlotte's Jonathan Hadley, who gave a flamboyant performance as record producer Bob Crewe in 2010, now approaches the enjoyable ripeness of Limburger cheese.

The Robert Rauschenberg-style paintings above the set underline the action and are about as simplistic.

The show rewrites history more than I'd remembered. We never learn that Crewe wrote lyrics to most of these songs. (The authors imply that Gaudio did.) The real Four Seasons released all their pre-disco hits before DeVito left the band; in "Jersey Boys," they boot him and then keep knocking out their familiar pop standards.

None of this need affect our enjoyment, of course: We're watching a juicy, fast-paced fiction, not a documentary.

And the level of professionalism hasn't gone down an iota, from fervent onstage drumming by Mark Papazian, to the zeal of the three actresses who play every female part. For these dedicated souls, the show hasn't gotten a whit more stale on its unending travels.

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