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When Rick Elice sat down for his first meeting with Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, two original members of '60s rock group The Four Seasons, it didn't take long for a juicy story to emerge.

"We were sitting in the back of a dark Italian restaurant on West 46th Street in Manhattan, waiting for the salad, and we asked, innocently enough, 'So, what was it like growing up in New Jersey on the wrong side of the tracks?' And that was all we said for the next two hours," Elice said. "They just started in, with one anecdote after another and I found myself doing that thing that a kid does when he's hearing a great bedtime story. I'm leaning forward, I'm wide awake, I'm really interested. I'm saying things like, 'Are you kidding?' or 'That really happened?' or 'Come on, get out of here, that's impossible!'"

And so began "Jersey Boys," an attempt to rescue an iconic American quartet from the clutches of irrelevance by passing its story through the glittery filter of musical theater -- and to make boatloads of money in the process. The show, which traces the story of the Four Seasons from their formation and popular success to their run-ins with the mob and eventual washout, opens a nearly three-week run in Shea's Performing Arts Center on Wednesday.

Getting the show on its feet in New York City was a fight, however. In the wake of "Mamma Mia!," a retrofitting of ABBA songs into a lighthearted story-line that was a massive success on Broadway, critics from New York to Los Angeles were up in arms about the ascendancy of the "jukebox musical."

Director Des McAnuff, then the artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego and now artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont., put the show into rehearsals before the script had been completed by Elice and co-writer Marshall Brickman. And unlike jukebox shows such as "Mamma Mia!" and "Movin' Out," McAnuff cast all the songs as actual performances. This way, "Jersey Boys" avoided the disjunction that can happen in the minds of audience members when performers move suddenly from dialogue to song.

In an interview with The News between rehearsals at Stratford, McAnuff expounded on his philosophy about the role of songs in bio-musicals.

"Songs rarely advance the plot in musicals. It's one of the great lies we tell each other in musical theater," McAnuff said. "They actually expand the piece emotionally. And in 'Jersey Boys,' particularly in the second half of the show, they develop the piece not just emotionally but thematically. I don't know if it's groundbreaking, but I think it's unusually pertinent theater and it plugs into some American mythic ideas that have to do with immigrants and family and the mob and the music business that seem to really speak to people."

That's an understatement. Since the show opened its ongoing run at the August Wilson Theatre in New York City in November 2005, it has more than recouped its investment and spawned productions in Toronto, Chicago, Las Vegas, London, Melbourne, and the current blockbuster tour. So much for all the hubbub about the death of the jukebox musical.

"Everyone assumed that there was a flaw in the genre," Elice said, "but it's a little bit like saying, 'Oh God, not another rectangular painting!' It's really much more important what's in the frame."

e-mail: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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PREVIEW: "Jersey Boys" opens in Shea's Performing Arts Center 646 Main St. on Wednesday and runs through May 9. Tickets are $22.50 to $127.50.

For more information, call 847-0850 or visit www.sheas.org.