"Jersey Boys" Continues Hitting High Notes

Direct from its humble start as a "little musical" at La Jolla Playhouse, "Jersey Boys" acquired Broadway in 2005 and has not looked back. The latest national tour of the musical inspired by Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons is underway.

At the same time, the winner of Tony, Olivier (London) and Helpman (Australia) Awards for Best Musical and a Grammy for Best Musical Show Album continues playing to SRO crowds in New York, Las Vegas, London, Sydney and Auckland, New Zealand.

Ron Melrose, the music director and vocal arranger, was one of the geniuses behind the production from its beginning. As the one responsible for keeping all six shows on the same page at all times, he rotates between the companies to make sure that every element is in tact. During the 10 to 12 weeks while the new tour was forming and rehearsing, he was constantly in hands-on mode.

Two aspects of the show must be done exactly right to maintain integrity, he points out. First of all, the story-telling must be fresh. Even though the cast is telling the same story night after night, they can not fall back. Secondly, it's put together so intricately on every level that nothing varies, not the lighting, sound cues, musical closures or any other aspect. Everything works like a Swiss watch.

Joseph Leo Bwari plays the role of Frankie Valli, continuing a four-year turn during which time he opened the Las Vegas and Toronto shows and toured more than 40 cities. Along the way, he performed on the Tony Awards and Academy Awards shows, released his debut album and appeared in three films, including "Race to Witch Mountain" in which he played his alter ego, Frankie Valet.

Melrose says that Bwarie and his counterparts around the world train like athletes. Even though each has a fine singing voice, "Jersey Boys" requires them to sing in an iconic falsetto voice. Constant singing in that register can easily harm the vocal chords, so they work with New York vocal coach Katie Agresta. To avoid permanent damage, they stay in their dressing rooms after every show to "warm down" their voices.

As music director, Melrose has prepared 30 of the 45 conductors of the show. While jetting around the world to evaluate each company, he sometimes tweaks the arrangements to suit the personnel. Several of the players also play instruments on stage. Everything is live, not dubbed, so when the actor cast as Norm in the Chicago company played drums better than the one playing Knuckles, Melrose switched their instruments.

He is always on the New York casting team when final auditions occur. The players in this country's companies are from North America, those in the London company are from Great Britain and those in Australia and New Zealand are native to their countries, but all must acquire the Jersey accent. Many actors audition time and again, hoping an opening will occur in one of the most popular musicals ever produced.

Melrose's latest success is a follow-up to the cast album that went platinum. The "Jersey Boys" Christmas album utilizes the Frankie Valli from every company, including the two who play equal shows in Las Vegas and the original Broadway Frankie. There are seven in all, with each Frankie featured on two tracks and singing one song together.

"The greatest reward for me every day is the experience of being a big part of a show that is so well crafted and works for the audience," Melrose says. "It's a good time all around."

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