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Jersey Boys at the Hobby Borders on Genius

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Check out our interview with Colby Foytik who plays Tommy DeVito.

The setup: If you're ever asked, What's the best "jukebox musical" ever, here's a sure tip for all you theater junkies -- Jersey Boys. Might this also be the best musical of the last ten years? Could be, but it's undeniably one of the most popular, entertaining, and phenomenally successful shows ever. You will not see a slicker musical.

Thanks to Gexa Energy Broadway, The Four Seasons are back, the Hobby's got 'em, and we're happily swamped under a tsunami of nostalgia, good vibrations and four-part harmony. This musical is instant transportation: back to high school, gym dances, drive-in movies, hamburger joints, anywhere where we first heard these guys sing. The show puts a warm wide smile on our face.

The execution: Jukebox shows are an ersatz form of Broadway entertainment that purloin previous hit songs for the score and then cobbles a story to fit around them. (It's often easier -- and cheaper -- to acquire the rights to popular songs then to take a chance on an original score.) The songs arrive with built-in appeal. You know what you're going to get. The hard part is building the story. There are more undistinguished jukebox shows than good ones, think Boy From Oz, Lennon, or any Roger Bean compilation.

Boys is specially gifted because it has a whole raft of solid gold hits from which to glean: the entire Four Seasons' catalog. You can't go wrong with "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," or "Walk Like a Man." The music resonates. It's instant catnip for baby-boomers.

Instead of plopping songs into a plot that was never intended to hold them, book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice take the path of least resistance. Since they use Four Seasons songs, they'll tell the Four Seasons' story. What could be simpler? With some poetic license, the songs fit chronologically in the order they were recorded and dovetail with the story of the guys' rise to fame.

This interweaving of song and plot is so dexterous it borders on genius, and when it works best it illuminates a state of mind as much as it propels the narrative, as when Frankie's marriage breaks up and he sings "My Eyes Adored You" to his wife sitting forlornly on the staircase. This is sophisticated music story-telling. If future producers want a quick lesson in structure, Jersey Boys is the one to learn from; it's the top.

Backstagers don't exactly set Broadway on fire; stuffed as they are with clichés that befall the low-class kid struggling "to get out." We can tick them off in our sleep: self-doubt, infidelity, jealousy, money problems, unscrupulous managers, unbridled ego. All these obstacles fall into place here, and Jersey Boys would be more of the same if not for the show's ace in the hole: the Boys themselves.

These petty hoods are so damned loveable, we root for their success right from the start. Standing on a street corner in rustbelt New Jersey, they love to sing, harmonizing like roughhouse angels, and they have a chance to make it if they can stay out of jail long enough to form a group. When Tommy (Colby Foytik), the most prickly of the four with unsavory mob ties, brings in young Frankie (Brad Weinstock) with his amazing vocal range to join himself and modest musician friend Nick (Brandon Andrus) in their new band, the course is set.

Later, when songwriter Bob Gaudio (Jason Kappus), who would pen their biggest hits with lyricist/producer Bob Crewe (Barry Anderson), is introduced to the trio, the new quartet coalesces with an unflagging rightness. Appropriating the name of the bowling alley where they're treading water musically, the newly christened Four Seasons finds it unique sound, and the music -- and the musical -- takes wing.

All four guys narrate the story, adding pieces to each other's puzzle. Everybody gets an equal say, and this cohesion among the guys is an unwritten theme of the show, as are loyalty and keeping your word to your buddies. Excluding the great songs, these old-fashioned values go a long way in making Jersey Boys so appealing. In spite of all the in-fighting, personal demons, and obstacles to be overcome on the march to the top of the charts, this is a very "up" show -- another of its many charms.

Director Des McAnuff, who's led the show since its 2004 inception at California's La Jolla Playhouse, keeps it smartly spinning with all the sleekness of a top 40s DJ. Nothing is allowed to slow down: not the intense lighting effects from Howell Binkley, not the many set pieces of Klara Zieglerova which slide on and off as if the stage were oiled; not the guys' spirited moves stylishly choreographed by Sergio Trujillo; not the redolent costumes by Jess Goldstein which run from bowling shirts to sequined Vegas sport coats.

To keep strong focus on the story and the songs, the set's minimal: a looming erector set grid with walkway, some chain-link fencing, and a factory silhouette to evoke a worn-out Jersey. When needed, a neon bar sign, or the like, flies in to designate place. What seems out of place are the Roy Lichtenstein-like pop-art cartoon panels that drop down to comment on the action. Stylistically they're all wrong for the Seasons' smooth sound and are much too smug for a show that drips with this much sincerity.

The four Boys are outstanding: Foytik is all mucho bluster as wayward petty gangster Tommy, titular head of the group; Andrus is lovingly low-key as unassuming Nick, the group's master arranger; Kappus supplies a charming steel to boyish hit-maker composer Bob Gaudio; and Weinstock goes from not-quite-so-innocent adolescent to grown-up survivor -- with splendid falsetto pipes -- as Frankie Valli. Other characters in the boys' story are stylishly handled by Ian Joseph, Thomas Fiscella, Marlana Dunn, Rachel Schur, et. al., who double and triple up roles. Maestro Ben Hartman with his ten-piece band keeps everything bopping.

The verdict: This accomplished musical story of our own American Fab Four, still running on Broadway and breaking records on tour, amazes anew. When the four principals blend their voices in any of their classic songs, "Big Man in Town," "Dawn," "Working My Way Back To You," "Let's Hang On," musical theater just doesn't get any better. Oh, What a Night, indeed!

Frankie and friends harmonize adroitly through March 31 at the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby. Purchase tickets online at thehobbycenter.org or call 800-982-2787. $73.40 - $160.65.

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