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'JERSEY BOYS' DELIVERS A THRILL

The musical offers an artful mix of music, story, talent, staging and design.

More than a few tears of joy will be shed during Jersey Boys. There is something deeply affecting about men harmonizing, from the Four Freshmen to the Beach Boys to the Four Tops. It was the essence of 1960s American pop music, exhilarating in its freedom and nostalgic at the same time, all those guys singing on street corners.

No one did it better than Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, at least in the context of a brilliant musical that gives the group a humanity that was not apparent when it was cranking out Top 40 hits.

Jersey Boys, which had previews Wednesday and Thursday and opens officially tonight, certainly has the hits, and crank them out it does, from the Seasons' first No. 1 record, Sherry, to latter-day gems like Who Loves You. But what really makes the musical tick is the book (by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice), which has high drama and a strong sense of place in blue-collar New Jersey.

Tommy DeVito, a founding member of the Seasons, was a hustler who did time in prison, and his presence rivals that of Valli, whose inimitable falsetto was the group's signature. The rocky relationship between Tommy and Frankie is what elevates Jersey Boys above a mere catalog of catchy tunes. The narrative runs out of steam in Act 2 when the group breaks up.

Christopher Kale Jones does a good job portraying Frankie, with a clear, high voice that blends thrillingly with the others in their first song together, Cry for Me. And then it's off to the races, with one great number after another for Frankie, from a dazzling Dawn to the bittersweet My Eyes Adored You. Jones is convincing enough as Frankie grows through the years from punk kid into Vegas smoothie.

Andrew Rannells brings boyish charm to Bob Gaudio, who wrote the Seasons' songs along with producer Bob Crewe (Jonathan Hadley). Erik Bates is a blast as the loudmouth Tommy. Steve Gouveia gets some laughs as neatnik bass player Nick Massi.

Director Des McAnuff has a knack for this sort of material. His staging makes artful use of live video of American Bandstand and Ed Sullivan Show scenes as well as the pop art projections of Michael Clark.

Costume designer Jess Goldstein gets Italian style down cold in the guys' sleek, pointy-lapeled jackets, with skinny ties and lavender shirts. Their iridescent outfits in Walk Like a Man explode with red and gold in the lighting of Howell Binkley. Another visual treat is Sergio Trujillo's cool choreography.

The unsung stars of Jersey Boys are music director Ron Melrose and orchestrator Steve Orich. The arrangements have been punched up to give the songs tremendous power, even when they are truncated. Only Can't Take My Eyes Off You tracks at about the same time onstage as on record.

In a lot of ways, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons sound better in this Broadway show than they ever did in real life.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716.

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