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Review: 'Jersey Boys' at the Straz is a rocking good time

From left, Quinn VanAntwerp, Hayden Milanes, Nicolas Dromard and Adam Zelasko.
From left, Quinn VanAntwerp, Hayden Milanes, Nicolas Dromard and Adam Zelasko.
Published Apr. 9, 2014

TAMPA — Handshake on it. You'll have a good time at Jersey Boys.

The audience clapped from the start Tuesday, and not at those carefully crafted slivers when an audience is supposed to clap. They clapped at the first few notes of songs, the punch lines, anything that harkened to New Jersey (which was, you know, everything).

"Let's face it," said the Four Seasons' troublemaking Tommy DeVito (Nicolas Dromard). "We put Jersey on the map."

Wild applause! Hoots! Hollers!

The Jersey Boys national tour directed by Des McAnuff is in Tampa this week at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. The jukebox musical recalls the formation and struggles of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Clint Eastwood is directing a film adaptation set for this summer.

This tour stop was a fulfilling moment for Hayden Milanes, who plays Valli. Milanes, 28, is a Tampa native who went to Howard W. Blake School of the Arts. It was the first time in his three years on tour that he got to perform the show in Tampa.

He did his hometown proud, taking Valli from wiry teen on the block to megastar with duffles of personal problems. He has an interesting interplay with the audience, with the Four Seasons performing to the crowd, the crowd reciprocating, and Milanes responding with grateful, watery eyes.

Milanes has a furrowed energy that gives Valli a nervous edge around the other guys. It's a power struggle between the men, and Valli is the glue, intent on holding onto the values of the old neighborhood as everything changes. Milanes channels Valli's falsetto in a sweet way that grows more confident as his character matures.

But the stomach flutters really come when the Four Seasons sing together. When Bob Gaudio (the boyish Quinn VanAntwerp) joins the group and leads them through Cry For Me, you realize each voice is just not the same without the others.

Dromard plays the unstable DeVito with smug pride and excellent comic zing. But the most quietly appealing actor is Adam Zelasko, a doppelganger for Don Draper who is at turns hilarious, dry and sexy as under-appreciated bass singer Nick Massi.

When the group finds its footing and signature sound, we're sent on a exhilarating back-to-back ride through Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry and Walk Like a Man. Hoots! Screams! Claps!

The set changes swiftly, morphing from a prison in Jersey to the Silhouette Club to a pizza restaurant, punctuated with 1960s pop art projections. Each actor looks sharp in tailored suits styled by costumer Jess Goldstein. It's all eye candy.

The energy wanes as the story gets more complicated in the second act — book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice deal with loads of painful narrative warts in not nearly enough time. The ending feels abrupt, too neatly tied up with a bow.

Not that anyone cared. The crowd seemed to identify with Jersey Boys' bigger mission of presenting classic tunes without much esoteric, navel-gazing ennui. It's a cultural thing one of the Jersey Boys aptly explains:

"We weren't a social movement like the Beatles. Our fans didn't put flowers in their hair and try to levitate the Pentagon. ... Our people were the guys who shipped overseas, and their sweethearts. They were factory workers, truck drivers. The kids pumping gas, flipping burgers."

And when the house cleared out, the fans murmured on the way to their cars as if they'd just seen the real Four Seasons live, in concert.

"You know which one they didn't do?" they said, and named a favorite song.

Stephanie Hayes can be reached at shayes@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

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