By John Benson
The idea that a musical about a rough and tumble group would lead to fisticuffs in the audience didn’t surprise “Jersey Boys” lead Joseph Bwarie. What did catch the California native off guard was the fact a fight famously took place in Cleveland during opening night of the Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons musical a few years ago at Playhouse Square.
“It had to do with someone yelling and someone’s older mother,” said Bwarie, calling from St. Louis. “And everyone in Cleveland is so nice, that’s why it was shocking to us. Like when we played Rhode Island, there’s a lot of Jersey guys there. So, sure, maybe there’s a big Italian brawl. But Cleveland?”
Cleveland rocks and Cleveland brawls, apparently; however, this is nothing new to Bwarie, who over the past four years has been in more than 1,000 “Jersey Boy” productions. He said when it comes to fights in the audience, the show must go on.
“What happens is they fight as much as they can during the show without causing a huge scene and then they take it to the lobby,” Bwarie said. “Now production-wise, there will be nights where something technically goes wrong or we have a fire alarm or medical emergency and we stop the show. But for just fights, we don’t stop the show. We keep going.”
Considering the cast is playing a bunch of tough Jersey boys, it’s apropos they take on the rough personas of Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, a group of blue-collar boys from the wrong side of the tracks, and don’t let a scrap here or there in the audience interrupt their show.
As for the Tony Award-winning “Jersey Boys,” which features Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons’ big songs “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “December, 1963 [Oh, What a Night]” and more, the musical opened in November of 2005 in New York. Instantly it became a sensation because of the hit songs as well as wild stories of the Garden State group. The production returns to the State Theatre from Wednesday through July 17.
“There’s jail time and mob ties and mega-relationship issues and gambling problems,” Bwarie said. “It’s a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes of the music. Back in the ’60s, there was no TMZ. And as a listener or audience member back in the day, you had no idea what musicians and actors are going through. This sort of shows you music and the hits, and what they went through to get them.”
The ringleader back in the day, as well as in “Jersey Boys,” is the falsetto-heavy Valli, whom Bwarie portrays nightly. So what advice did the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee give the young Bwarie when he started?
“As far as tips goes, I think he has to sign off on us to be cast,” said Bwarie, who also played the role of Chachi in the Los Angeles production of “Happy Days: A New Musical. “He’s in the final process of our audition and that’s where he gets to say, ‘Yes, he’s got what it takes to portray me’ or you don’t get cast.”
Sounds like Valli is kind of like the “Jersey Boys” godfather.
“He is, and he’s what we call the living legend, truly,” Bwarie said. “He’s a very smart guy, and I think he knows that ‘Jersey Boys’ has not only reintroduced him to everyone who knew him but all the new people who didn’t grow up with Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons. Now they’re going to his concerts and loving it. They can learn the whole story with us and see the real guy come back and sing it. So it’s a neat part of music and Broadway history.”