No matter where you start, the pitfalls of fame and fortune are difficult to avoid.
The characters at the center of "Jersey Boys," the hit bio-musical based on the rise and fall of '60s rock group The Four Seasons, learn that lesson the hard way. An immaculately produced, directed and performed production of the show opened Wednesday night in Shea's Performing Arts Center.
Like so many pieces of film, theater and television before it, "Jersey Boys" derives much of its wide and growing appeal from the quintessential American fascination with the tragedy of celebrity, success and inevitable corruption. In the case of The Four Seasons, we learn, the corruption was there in the first place, which makes their success that much more improbable and fascinating.
It should come as no surprise that "Jersey Boys" is produced with a mechanized degree of precision, with hardly a syllable of wasted dialogue and transitions that shift the characters seamlessly from recording studio to concert hall, back alley to hotel bedroom. No surprise either that the music -- ingrained into the popular consciousness through decades of radio play, film soundtracks and high school proms -- is irresistible.
What might be surprising is the long, sordid story of the band itself, which has undergone a dizzying array of transformations since it formed in 1960. Who knew, for instance, that its fortunes and blunders were so tied up with the mob?
"Jersey Boys" gives us what is essentially a highly amusing and polished book report on The Four Seasons, which is exactly what musicals of this particular breed are out to accomplish. But unlike other less successful shows, the creators of the show -- namely director Des McAnuff and writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice -- managed to achieve a degree of character development, emotional depth and continuity.
The personalities of each of the Seasons' four original members -- the conflicted Frankie Valli (Joseph Leo Bwarie, who will trade off the role in future performances with Graham Fenton and John Michael Dias), overbearing Tommy DeVito (Matt Bailey), quirky Nick Massi (Steve Gouveia) and even-keeled Bob Gaudio (Ryan Jesse) -- elevate the show beyond a simple recitation of the facts.
As Valli, Bwarie has the diminutive stature and soaring falsetto of the legendary frontman, to which he adds an unexpected sweetness and an undercurrent of insecurity that ebbs as his success grows. He shines on Four Seasons hits like "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man" and "Big Girls Don't Cry," but for my money sounds more compelling on numbers where his voice is less buffeted by horns or by the double-tracking effect meant to emulate the sound of the original Four Seasons records. These include "I'm in the Mood for Love," and the show-stopping "Can't Take My Eyes off You."
Bailey gives us a believably rough-edged DeVito, Jesse an endearing and buttoned-up Gaudio, and Gouveia a hilarious interpretation of the oft-overshadowed Massi, at one point comparing himself to Ringo Starr. The show's three female characters do impressive work playing 54 characters. They are Buffalo-born Denise Payne, Candi Boyd and Kara Tremel.
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
Musical through May 9 in Shea's Performing Arts Center, 646 Main St.
For information, call 847-1410 or visit www.sheas.org.