Jersey Boys has one particularly challenging piece of casting. The hit musical about Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons needs an actor to play Frankie Castellucio. He's the kid who changed his last name to Valli and sang "like an angel'' in a soaring falsetto that was the group's trademark.
Producers of the show go to great lengths to cultivate actors for the role. They need a steady supply because Jersey Boys has five companies in the United States, Great Britain and Australia. The national tour makes its second visit to Tampa this week.
"We do a thing called Frankie Camp,'' says Richard Hester, production supervisor for Jersey Boys. "We spend a lot of time looking for guys who are potentially right for the part. Which means they have to be under 5 foot 9, look, at least with the help of hair dye, like they come from Italy, and they have to be able to sing up in their falsetto. There are a lot of people who can hit those notes but can't quite make them sound warm, which is part of the magic that Frankie Valli is able to do effortlessly.''
All the Four Seasons' hits featured Valli's high falsetto, songs such as Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry and Dawn (Go Away). "The real difficult one is Walk Like a Man,'' Hester says. "The riff at the beginning is very specific. It's the hardest to pull off because it's the most exposed.''
Once Hester and company have found about 10 Frankie prospects, they gather the actors for a week of training that includes sessions with associate choreographer Danny Austin and vocal coach Katie Agresta in New York. Two or three of them will go on to audition for director Des McAnuff and the show's creative team. Valli and another Season, Bob Gaudio, the group's principal songwriter, also have casting approval.
"Walking into the room and seeing Frankie and Bob there was the most nerve-racking, intense . . . ,'' says Joseph Leo Bwarie, who plays Frankie in the tour. "I don't know how to describe it. That man (Valli) was the reason I was standing there. It was a whole different level of 'I have to be good here.' ''
Hester has seen some pressure-packed auditions for Jersey Boys. "When it comes down to it, casting is completely subjective,'' he says. "It depends on everybody's mood on the day. It depends on how the guys audition. Sometimes they go belly up because of nerves or something that happened at home. The thing about auditioning is that you have one shot to make it right. You either hit it or you miss it.''
John Lloyd Young was the original Frankie on Broadway, and he won a Tony Award for his performance. "We don't ever make anybody copy John Lloyd Young,'' Hester says. "What we're looking for with these guys is a warmth in the voice that makes it compelling and easy to listen to. If they can keep their falsetto in tune and hit the notes we want, we will develop them.''
Bwarie, 33, who has played Frankie for more than three years in the Las Vegas production and the tour, started performing as a child actor in Los Angeles. At 8, he played a caroler on a Christmas episode of Michael Landon's TV series Highway to Heaven.
"I've been singing falsetto my entire life,'' he says. "For me, the work that I put in was how to manipulate my voice to sound more like Frankie. It was not a tutorial on how to sing high. It was very different for me than some of the other guys who didn't spend so many years of their life in that range.''
He has gotten to know Valli. "We don't talk about how to play him,'' Bwarie says. "That's just awkward. Frankie and Bob will tell stories. Mostly Bob. Frankie is a very quiet man. He's probably the most engaging and outgoing when he's onstage as Frankie the performer. Frankie the man is quiet. He's less overt a personality than Bob. Bob will tell you all the stories. Frankie is quiet. He'll sit next to Bob and agree.''
Because of the vocal demands of the role, Bwarie plays six shows a week, while John Michael Dias does Thursday matinees and Sunday evening performances, as well as a few others. "Two-and-a-half hours, 27 songs, you're onstage the whole show,'' Bwarie says. "This is definitely a marathon, a vocal marathon.''
About 35 actors have played Frankie in various productions of Jersey Boys, and the demand for more is likely to continue. The Broadway production, which opened in 2005, is still going strong, and new shows are in the pipeline for Europe and Asia. Each requires four actors who can play the role, including two understudies.
"We look for Frankies anywhere,'' Hester says. "One of the jokes we have is, we'll be sitting in a restaurant, and somebody will come by to clear the table, and he's got dark hair, and he's about 5 foot 6, and we'll say, 'Do you know how to sing?' ''
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.