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‘Jersey Boys:’ Broadway preserved onscreen

Sixty years ago, when young actor Clint Eastwood went to the movies, Hollywood had a tradition: As soon as a Broadway musical had a healthy run, some studio would turn it into a film. The point was not to be innovative but to capture the stage experience faithfully for millions of people who could never get to New York or see the live show on a national tour

He has honored that tradition by directing “Jersey Boys,” which in most respects is a scene-for-scene (and even line-for-line) adaptation of the Broadway show about the Four Seasons. He has opened it up physically on various sets and locations but otherwise changed almost nothing.

Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice earned a Tony nomination for the book of the Broadway show, and they’ve written the screenplay. Except for one alteration in character – Frankie Valli’s daughter is presented as a singer whose talent might equal her dad’s – I can’t think of a significant change. The part of mobster Gyp DeCarlo, Valli’s patron, has been beefed up to justify the casting of Christopher Walken, but the character’s the same.

Like the show, the finished product falls between drama and musical: We hear dozens of songs or pieces of songs, all performed in recording studios or onstage. Choreography remains minimal, and numbers don’t advance the narrative: They’re soundalike renditions of “Sherry,” “Oh What a Night,” “Walk Like a Man” and other Four Seasons hits.

The story still deals with heavy topics: infidelity, drug addiction, gambling addiction, the breakup of families. Yet no character could be called complex; even if you’re a Jersey boy (as I am), and you know guys like this, they come across as stereotypically foul-mouthed toughs who thank somebody by slapping him and drop letters off the fronts of words. (“Ey, at’s ow it as to be!”)

Eastwood wisely cast John Michael Young, who won a Tony playing Valli, in the lead. He also hired three other guys who’ve done these parts somewhere: Vincent Piazza as self-destructive Tommy DeVito, Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio and Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi. (If Lomenda looks familiar, you saw him in Charlotte on the national tour.) Even Renée Marino, who’s ferocious as Valli’s wife in her film debut, played that part on Broadway.

Tom Stern, Eastwood’s cinematographer for 12 years, lets the team down: The colors are drab and washed out, the lighting flat and dull. Eastwood has never been a visual or editing stylist – he’s a director of actors – and the pace sometimes seems slow, though perhaps that’s because he included so many details from the play.

The story, which goes from 1951 to the late 1960s and then leaps forward to 1990, seems to take place in a time warp: Except for changing haircuts, we get little sense of the era. (Of course, that was true of this group’s music, too.)

So it’s possible to imagine a handsomer, deeper, grittier or more socially conscious version of “Jersey Boys.” But a more faithful version? Hardly, and that’s what audiences seeking to experience it for the first time or recapture happy theatrical feelings will want.

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