City Paper is not for tourists
You’d have to say Jersey Boys, the Tony-winning bio-tuner on Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is proof that a by-the-numbers jukebox musical can work—assuming the numbers themselves are reasonably foolproof. The show, which charts the group’s rise from streetlamp crooning to doo-wop glory in the early ’60s, hasn’t an original bone in its mechanical body, but let Joseph Leo Bwarie’s Valli open up his keening falsetto on “Sherry,” or “Big Girls Don’t Cry” or any of the show’s variously precise evocations of the group’s hits, and the years drop away pretty effectively. I should confess to being amply qualified to make that claim. Valli and the Seasons headlined at my high school gym (Bethesda’s Walt Whitman, back when it was the “home of the dome”) in 1965, which says something about the kind of dates they were playing at the peak of their popularity. My recollection—possibly inaccurate after so many years—is that the teen crowd was far more subdued than their cheering middle-aged selves are at the National Theater some four decades later. Makes sense, I suppose. The group had fewer hits in ’65 than they do in the current retrospective, and I remember my classmates’ post-concert chatter about how ancient the real group looked (Valli was 31, the older Seasons were pushing 40) whereas the performers at the National now seem like precocious kids. Bwarie’s middle range is actually prettier than Valli’s (at times he’s almost channeling Connie Francis), but an absence of grit in the vocals is of-a-piece with the show’s Dreamgirls-meets-denatured-Goodfellas narrative and the studiedly neutral industrial setting (a wall of aluminum fencing, a metal bridge, and some video screens). After a quick French hip-hop version of “Oh What a Night” reminds the crowd of the sort of music this trip down Nostalgia Lane is helping them escape, the show zips through the traditional bio-musical narrative—the cascade of initial hits, the family issues and dissension that fracture the group, the comeback, and induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Only toward evening’s end is there an attempt to integrate Four Seasons hits into plot situations, and then clumsily (Valli croons “Bye Bye Baby” when his estranged daughter hangs up on him), but that’s not really what the audience has come for anyway. They’re looking for a persuasive tribute concert—think Beatlemania with a less varied repertoire—and along with biographical details and laughlines, that’s more or less what Jersey Boys offers.