TAMPA — The first act of Jersey Boys is like a time capsule of pop music history. When Bob Gaudio sits down at the piano to play a song he has just written, then is joined by Frankie Valli and two other guys in the soaring harmonies of Cry for Me, the sound of the Four Seasons is born. This spine-tingling moment comes about 20 minutes into the musical, which opened a return engagement Wednesday at the Straz Center, but it's only the beginning as the group soon launches into a string of early '60s hits in exhilarating succession: Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry and Walk Like a Man.
The pop songs of Billy Joel and ABBA, among others, have supplied the scores for smash Broadway shows, but Jersey Boys may be the best of the bunch. It's more than just another jukebox musical, thanks to its high-powered staging by director Des McAnuff and the excellent book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice that tells how the group rose from its blue-collar New Jersey roots. There's a seamy underside to the Four Seasons story that makes it compelling, at least until Act 2 when the group breaks up.
It's no coincidence that Jersey Boys falters when Tommy DeVito (Matt Bailey) is pushed out. He is the villain you love to hate, an ex-convict who was the driving force in the early days, and his troubled relationship with Valli (whom DeVito discovered) is a constant source of dramatic tension. At first, Bailey seems too geeky for an operator like Tommy, but his performance eventually blends in well with the male bonding theme that makes this the rare musical that might be more popular with men than women.
Joseph Leo Bwarie is superb as Frankie, not just for his tonally secure falsetto but also for his smoldering Italian style (the actor is actually Lebanese-American) and smooth dance moves. Bwarie's shining scene as an actor is in My Eyes Adored You, a duet between Valli and his first wife, Mary Delgado (Kara Tremel), after they split up. He and his mates give a stirring rendition of Dawn (Go Away), the quintessential class-conscious Four Seasons song because of its point of view of "a poor boy like me" in love with a rich girl.
Quinn VanAntwerp is sweetly appealing as Gaudio, the songwriter with the Midas touch. Steve Gouveia displays droll comic timing as neatnik bass player Nick Massi. The cast also includes such fine character actors as Joseph Siravo, who plays mobster Gyp DeCarlo, and Jonathan Hadley, who plays iconic gay record producer Bob Crewe.
Jersey Boys has a rich, flashy look, from the sleek suits, skinny ties and lavender shirts that costume designer Jess Goldstein outfits the group in to Sergio Trujillo's funky choreography. Howell Binkley's glamorous lighting and Michael Clark's comic-strip projections jazz up the industrial-strength set by Klara Zieglerova.
Much of the success of Jersey Boys is owed to the lush vocal arrangements by Ron Melrose and Steve Orich's punchy orchestrations, especially the brass and percussion. With nice theatrical flair, conductor John Samorian and the orchestra players come out of their hiding place to appear onstage in the finale.
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.