Jonny Wexler vividly remembers taking his seat at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway and enjoying “Jersey Boys” in 2006, just a week after the musical hauled away four Tony Awards.
“Somehow, to be honest, it never occurred to me that it may be a good show for me,” recalled the Canadian-born actor, in the middle of his second season as Frankie Valli in a touring production of the musical. “More than 10 years later, I stand corrected.”
“Jersey Boys,” which enjoyed a 16-performance run through Broadway in Wichita six years ago this month, is back for a two-night stand this week at Century II.
The 30-something Wexler knew that he didn’t know much about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the subject of the jukebox musical, before he entered the theater.
“Like most of the audience members who come see the show, you realize how much Four Seasons music you really know as the show goes on,” he said in a phone interview from a San Antonio tour stop. “So definitely that experience happens.”
Once he returned home, he immediately downloaded the “Jersey Boys” cast album and bought a Four Seasons greatest-hits compilation and got to relive the magic on his own.
“I’d never been to a musical where the feeling in the room was so electric like that,” he said.
Now, he sees the response from center stage during the final scenes and curtain call.
“There’s nothing like the audience’s reaction to ‘Jersey Boys,’” he said. “Everybody’s up and dancing and so engaged with the story that you can hear the audible reaction to things that take place in the script.
“Every time we get a new cast member, they’re always ‘Wow, these audiences are amazing,’” he added. “But that’s a testament to the writing and the staging and the producing and the choreography.”
For three seasons before he was Valli on the “Jersey Boys” tour, Wexler was the understudy for the role, while playing Joe Pesci, a friend of the band-turned-Oscar winning actor.
“It’s not a transition that everyone makes, but a very natural transition nonetheless,” he said of the Pesci-to-Valli move.
Wexler said he was glad to have the understudy and Pesci experience before stepping into Valli’s shoes.
“Being with the company for five years you get to know the culture concerning what came before it and why we are where we’re at, and why things are the way they are,” he said. “That’s the most vital part of leading the company.”
Wexler has met the real Valli once – “just a handshake and a quick little chat,” he said of the now-84-year-old but has spent more time with Bob Gaudio, the youngest member of the Four Seasons and the group’s musical mastermind.
“It’s great to work on the music straight from the source and really find out about the questions you have. You get to the meat of the work,” Wexler said. “It’s great to know they’re as invested in the project as you are, and what the music in the story means to them. That permeates through the story all the way through.”
Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons notched hits in the 1960s including No. 1s “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Rag Doll,” as well as the 1975 comeback hit “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night).”
Valli is known for his pristine tenor voice, and Wexler said it takes work to maintain quality in that high register.
“The songs certainly fit in my range, so that’s helpful,” he said. “As much as they seem like pop songs and radio-friendly songs, when it comes to the singing of them it’s all very technical. It takes some time to work out approaches to every song, and different registers for different parts of the show.
“But once you have it, you have it,” Wexler added.
Wexler counts “Can’t Take My Eyes,” the 1967 No. 2 hit as one of his favorites to sing in the night, as well as Valli’s cover of the jazz standard “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love,” early in the first act.
“It really shows off the technical ability of Frankie’s voice and just how versatile it is,” Wexler said.
Every night, Wexler said, the show leaves him physically and emotionally drained.
“It’s a marathon of a show,” he said. “There’s no other show where one person is singing the lead on 30 songs. By the end, your voice is a muscle and that muscle gets tired by the end of the show.”
It all builds up to the climax of “Jersey Boys,” with the entire cast joining in on a full-out rendition of “Who Loves You.”
“The bulk of Frankie’s heavy lifting comes at the end of the show, but that’s not to say that there aren’t moments all through the first act that are not only difficult but tough to get right and put the same amount of focus on,” he said. “The way the show structures everything is genius.”
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Wednesday, Feb. 19-20
Where: Century II concert hall, 225 W. Douglas
Tickets: $100.50 to $45.50, from the Century II box office, wichitatix.com and at 316-303-8100
More information: americantheatreguild.com; Recommended for mature audiences.