‘Jersey Boys’ fails to deliver excitement of stage version

In “Think Like a Man Too,” Friday’s other big release, one of the characters suggests that, instead of a wild bachelor party, everyone should make better use of the Strip and just go see “Jersey Boys.”

Smart man.

The stage musical offers more entertainment than anything they encounter. Unfortunately, that version of “Jersey Boys” also outshines its big-screen counterpart.

Both versions of the dramatic rise and fall of The Four Seasons were scripted by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and they even lift large chunks of the dialogue straight from the musical’s book. Despite the direction of the iconic Clint Eastwood, everything feels so much flatter on screen, and the songs never explode the way they do from the stage.

Prison was a revolving door for the young men of Belleville, N.J., including Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda). But never little Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young), who was in the process of becoming Frankie Valli under the watchful eyes of the local police, judges and mobster Gyp DeCarlo (a perfectly cast Christopher Walken).

Even though he participated in the crimes that landed the others behind bars — stealing a safe nearly as big as their getaway car; breaking into a church to take advantage of its acoustics — Valli was spared, seemingly only because of his angelic voice.

The three friends carve out a respectable career in music under a variety of names, but things don’t jell until they’re introduced to a then one-hit wonder, “Short Shorts” writer Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen).

The man who brought them together? Joey Pesci (Joseph Russo). Yeah, that Joe Pesci, who feels more integral to the movie than the stage version and even exhibits a precursor to his eventual “Funny how?” persona.

When the quartet, rechristened The Four Seasons, rockets to fame with “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man,” the thrill of hearing those classic songs never really materializes. Only Valli’s solo hit, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” comes close to capturing the magic of the live version.

Credit Eastwood for eschewing big-name stars and scouting the musical’s various companies for talent, including Young, who won a Tony for his portrayal of Valli. Bergen, quite good as the group’s grounding force, and Renee Marino, who portrays Valli’s first wife, both came from the production that has been on the Strip since 2008 and now calls Paris Las Vegas home.

But Piazza (“Boardwalk Empire’s” Lucky Luciano), who has no previous “Jersey Boys” ties, has a presence the other three can’t match. Through the first 90 minutes or so, “Jersey Boys” is DeVito’s story, and Piazza’s casting further serves to elevate DeVito as the quartet’s most interesting character. (I’m not just saying that because DeVito still lives here and, even though he turned 86 on Thursday, could still smack me around a room.)

“Jersey Boys” is a fantastic tale full of wiseguys, loan sharks, betrayals, adultery, heartbreak, violence and F-bombs that you’d never expect from four seemingly clean-cut young men. If the movie is your first time experiencing the “Behind the Music”-style remembrance, you’ll no doubt be captivated. But, living in a world (and a city) where the stage show exists, it’s almost impossible not to compare the two.

The movie does improve on some aspects. The Brill Building comes alive in ways it can’t on stage. Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) still doesn’t get the credit he deserves for penning the lyrics to some of the group’s biggest hits, but he’s thankfully not the mincing caricature he’s become on stage. And Valli’s daughter, Francine, is more fleshed out, causing her story to feel closer to tragic than tacked on.

Much like the stage show, the movie rarely offers a clear sense of time, which isn’t helped by the fact that all four of the leads are way too old to be playing teenagers at the outset. It’s like casting “Beverly Hills 90210” with four Andrea Zuckermans. The movie at least is able to mark the passage of years with a goatee here or longer and wider sideburns there, but some of the eventual old-age makeup is sketchy at best. (Another technical note: The use of rear projection during a driving sequence is either meant to be ironic or it’s just plain sloppy.)

“Jersey Boys” just may be the perfect musical for guys. Heck, it’s barely even a musical. Certainly nothing like the nightmarish “Les Miserables” in which every single thought or utterance is warbled.

On stage, the songs almost always are performed in their natural environment: nightclubs, theaters, recording booths and TV studios. The movie distances itself from musicals even further by relegating some of the hits — “Stay,” “My Eyes Adored You” — to jukeboxes or the background and eliminating others — “Beggin’,” “Big Man in Town” — entirely.

The result is basically a drama with a killer soundtrack.

Oddly, though, the movie really only bursts to life during the “curtain call” of the closing credits, when the entire cast performs a completely out-of-character, Hollywood backlot song-and-dance number. There’s more energy in that moment than in the two hours that come before it.

If you have a spare $8 to $12, it’s certainly worth checking out the “Jersey Boys” movie. Odds are, you’ll enjoy it just fine and never know what you missed.

If you have a spare $60 to $200, however, get yourself to the Strip instead.

Like most things in life, you get what you pay for.

Contact Christopher Lawrence at clawrence@reviewjournal.com or 702-380-4567.

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