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Theater Review: “Jersey Boys” at the National Theatre

Broadway’s Four Seasons–inspired show returns to Washington, and it’s as foot-tappingly contagious as ever.

Michael Lomenda, Joseph Leo Bwarie, Preston Truman Boyd and John Gardiner (left to right) in Jersey Boys at the National Theatre. Photograph by Joan Marcus, courtesy Center Stage Marketing

New Jersey hasn’t exactly been blessed with the best publicity in recent years (here’s looking at you, Snooki). So it’s probably in the Garden State’s best interest to keep the 2005 Broadway smash Jersey Boys touring for as long as possible. The toe-tapping musical is now on its second lap in DC after breaking the National Theatre’s box office record in October 2009, and with its hard-to-deny mass appeal and ridiculously infectious score, chances are the slick production will be working its way back to another successful Washington run this time around.

Jersey Boys tells the true story of Jersey pop-rock quartet Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and their rise to stardom in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s a tale that’s been told plenty of times before: Blue-collar kids dream of fame, fortune, and a ticket out of their crummy neighborhood; suffer through gigs at bowling alleys and as backup singers until they catch their big break; struggle with the predictable pitfalls of newfound celebrity (women, money, life on the road); and so on. But when you’re attending a splashy touring Broadway show, nuanced drama and original storylines tend to be far less important than finessed musical arrangements, energetic choreography, and big-budget pageantry. And on those fronts, the show definitely delivers.

The Four Seasons’ considerable résumé of hits (the group had 71 songs in the Top 40, and eight number-one tunes) owes much of its success to Valli’s famous falsetto, and the diminutive Joseph Leo Bwarie (reprising the role he played in the show’s first DC run) nails it in all its high-pitched glory. Acting-wise, Bwarie is often overshadowed by more compelling castmates, such as Preston Truman Boyd as the group’s sharp and unassuming songwriter Bob Gaudio, or John Gardiner as the troublemaking Tommy DeVito. But Bwarie’s singing chops leave no question as to how the Four Seasons eventually became Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (his solo rendition of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” is especially impressive). Well-chosen supporting actors—including Jonathan Hadley as the group’s lyricist, Bob Crewe, and the perfectly intimidating Joseph Siravo, a Washington-area native, as mobster Gyp DeCarlo—complete an appealing cast.

Catching on to the successful “audiences like seeing productions where they already know all the words to the songs” formula, movie and musical producers have come out with a spate of box office favorites in the past decade ( Mamma Mia, Across the Universe, Million Dollar Quartet), but by faithfully portraying the Four Seasons’ actual career trajectory, the action here avoids feeling forced as others in the genre have. Instead, the storytelling in director Des McAnuff’s capable hands is smartly structured, with each band member narrating one “season,” entertainingly bridging the gaps between the familiar songs. Inventive lighting and colorful projections, designed by Howell Binkley and Michael Clark, add an extra dose of glitz to the show’s lively choreography and flashy matching suits. With all its Broadway pizzazz, clean-cut moves, and musical nostalgia for a simpler time, Jersey Boys might sound like fun for the whole family, but be warned—it’s not without a healthy sprinkling of “authentic Jersey” language.

The real reason to see this production, not surprisingly, is the music. The songs that were able to drive excitable teenagers to the dance floor nearly 50 years ago, like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Let’s Hang On (To What We’ve Got),” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” still possess a strange kind of power with their snappy beats and harmonized hooks, particularly when performed with such energy and polish—there’s a good chance you’ll need to have the tunes surgically removed from your head in the weeks following the show. It’s no wonder the National Theatre brought this musical back for an encore.

Jersey Boys is at the National Theatre through January 7. Tickets ($66.50 to $151.50) are available through the National Theatre’s Web site.