by Jim Ridley
Characters may fight, go to jail and die, but Tuesday night at TPAC a moment close to the city's heart drew the biggest emotional response of the night: songwriter Bob Gaudio asserting his publishing rights.
Welcome to Music City, Jersey Boys.
Now playing at TPAC's Jackson Hall through Sunday, the splashy musical treatment of the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is the kind of schmaltzy showbiz bio that's easy to mock, leaving few signposts untapped on the Behind the Music "… and then I wrote 'Sherry!' " route from rags to riches. (There's less dramatic importance attached here to a supporting character's death than there is to the band's finances.) But it's just as hard to resist, given gangbusters staging by Tony-winning whiz Des McAnuff and a cast that savors every morsel of swagger and bounce.
The book, by Woody Allen's ’70s collaborator Marshall Brickman and Peter and the Starcatcher author Rick Elice, finds a clever way to sort out the group's contentious history, giving every Season a "season" to tell his side of the story. Songwriter Gaudio (played by Jason Kappus) and frontman Valli (Nick Cosgrove) come across as nice enough guys, but it's the more problematic members who set off most of the fireworks: brash, big-headed founder Tommy DeVito, played by Nicolas Dromard with winning wiseguy bravado, and saturnine secret weapon Nick Massi, who as played by Brandon Andrus steals scenes with his hard-boiled asides and film-noir kisser.
The four leads get across the prickly chemistry that sometimes makes the best music out of the worst personality clashes, and McAnuff makes stage magic of their passage through a succession of dives and dinner clubs on the road to the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. Klara Zieglerova's spare but ingenious two-story set features a catwalk and flanking staircases that convert from prison corridors to a swanky nightclub at the change of a lighting cue, augmented by projected signs and judiciously incorporated video footage that set ambience with remarkable little fuss.
But if ever there's a show where you won't leave humming the scenery, it's this one. The songs by Gaudio (now a Nashville resident) and lyricist Bob Crewe remain jubilant fusions of bubblegum, street-corner-symphony doo-wop and first-generation rock 'n' roll, with earworms like "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Rag Doll" and "December, 1963 (Oh What a Night)" providing starbursts of energy throughout. They fare less well as vehicles for drama (like a sappy sequence of Valli's domestic woes set to "My Eyes Adored You") than for McAnuff's dizzying live-action montages — especially the dynamite Act One climax that carries the group from studio bickering to superstardom within the space of the anthemic "Walk Like a Man."
Among a supporting cast pressed into service in multiple roles as thugs, cops, girlfriends and groupies, Thomas Fiscella stands out as a mobster with a soft spot for weepy ballads. It's great fun, and only a comic seduction scene and some eruptions of Scorsese-esque profanity — appropriate, given the surprise identity of a supporting figure — might make parents think twice about taking anyone under 12. Tickets run $50-$120 plus surcharge depending on day and time; click here for more information.