Joseph Leo Bwarie doesn’t walk into a room, he bounces in. It’s reminiscent of his first entrance onto the stage of the Toronto Centre for the Arts, where Bwarie is starring in the hit musical Jersey Boys. In both instances, he gives the impression of a man who’s teeming with joie de vivre.
Maybe that’s because Joseph Leo Bwarie is living a dream, having worked his way into the enviable position of doing exactly what he loves best for a living. For him, Jersey Boys has been a year-long odyssey which has taken Bwarie all across the United States (and included extended layovers in San Francisco and Las Vegas) before bringing him to Toronto for three months. It’s also the culmination of a lifelong journey which began with Bwarie and his brother, John, putting on shows in their parents’ living room back in Los Angeles.
Jersey Boys, which tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is the jewel in the crown of Dancap Productions’ inaugural season, as well as the latest phase in the ongoing rebirth of the Toronto Centre for the Arts. For Bwarie, it’s also a unique opportunity: not only is he starring in arguably Broadway’s biggest hit since The Producers, he’s also playing a genuine musical legend. The Four Seasons has an impressive catalogue of hits (“Walk Like a Man” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” among them). Bob Gaudio might’ve written the songs—but Frankie Valli sang them, which puts Bwarie in the spotlight from the moment he first bounces on stage. Bwarie was a fan of the Four Seasons before Jersey Boys—he estimates he knew about half of the musical’s thirty-odd songs coming in—yet in spite of his obvious admiration for them, he says he doesn’t feel obligated to be Frankie Valli when he’s up on stage.
“You never want to do an impersonation unless you’re doing an impersonation,” Bwarie explains from a lounge inside the Toronto Centre for the Arts. “[Jersey Boys] is capturing the essence of a man, the life of a man, and not just bringing to it the glamorous, successful rock n’ roll star portion of his life.” Thus, Bwarie and the other lead actors (Andrew Rannells as Bob Gaudio, Steve Gouveia as Nick Massi, and Winnipeg native Jeremy Kushnier as Tommy DeVito) have to faithfully portray their characters without merely impersonating them. It’s a difficult balance to achieve. Fail, become too much of a tribute act, and Jersey Boys simply doesn’t succeed as a piece of serious theatre. What’s remarkable about the current Toronto cast is how Bwarie and the other lead actors—each of whom deliver impressive performances in their own right—succeed in doing exactly that. “Oftentimes, if I do encounter people after the show—audience members—they will say, ‘You became Frankie Valli,’” Bwarie says. Still, by the time he and his co-stars take their final bow and lead the rest of the cast in a joyous reprise of “Oh What a Night,” they’ve become the Four Seasons without ever sacrificing their own identities as actors.
The musical’s full title (Jersey Boys: the Story of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons) makes Jersey Boys sound suspiciously like one of the so-called “jukebox musicals” that’s been flooding international stages of late. It’s a derisive term, connoting cheap, disposable pap, and everyone associated with Jersey Boys (including Frankie Valli himself) is quick to dismiss the comparisons. Indeed, what’s surprising about Jersey Boys is how the musical—despite featuring most of the Four Seasons’ biggest hits as well as songs from Valli’s solo career—regularly eschews the glamourous parts of the group’s history in favour of its darker, more compelling aspects. Much of the credit for that certainly belongs to Des McAnuff, the show’s director. Raised in Scarborough and presently overseeing the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, McAnuff nursed Jersey Boys from its incubation period through to the final production. Jersey Boys isn’t McAnuff’s first time reworking pop masterpieces for the stage: in 1992 he collaborated with Pete Townshend on a theatrical version of The Who’s Tommy (which later had a nine-month run at the Elgin Theatre). In both instances, McAnuff emphasizes plot and character development, then uses the songs to drive both forward. That’s how musical theatre’s supposed to work—but when a director’s dealing with famous songs, it’s got to be difficult to resist making them the stars of the show. That seldom happens in Jersey Boys.
In Toronto, meanwhile, the four lead actors help McAnuff maintain this approach. Bwarie had worked with Rannells, Gouveia, and Kushnier during his various stints with Jersey Boys, yet the four of them hadn’t performed together as a unit until they opened in Toronto. The camaraderie is evident: you get the distinct impression that once they’re finished performing they’re immediately changing into their street clothes and grabbing a beer together, which Bwarie says isn’t far from the truth. They must be doing something right: so far, the response in Toronto has been nothing short of phenomenal. Before they opened, Bwarie and the rest of the cast were warned that their Canadian audiences would be less demonstrative—but “more refined”—than their American counterparts. However, since Jersey Boys opened to mostly positive reviews on August 24, it’s occasionally been getting mid-show standing ovations. That’s highly unusual anywhere, let alone Toronto; clearly, something about the musical is striking a chord with local audiences. (Not to mention audiences elsewhere: Jersey Boys continues to sell out New York’s August Wilson Theatre a year in advance.) Bwarie says that doesn’t really play on anyone’s mind, especially when they’re up on stage. But still, mid-show standing ovations? “That’s pretty cool,” he concedes.
An audience’s reaction can galvanize an actor, which becomes increasingly important as a musical settles in for an extended run. Living out of a suitcase for months on end is trying; there’s no simple solution for combating road weariness, and each performer has their own strategies for coping with the challenge. For Bwarie, that simply involves being “smart with what I’m eating, with how I’m taking care of my body, with how I’m taking care of my voice, with how much ‘extra’ or ‘excess’ use it gets and just being attune to the instrument that I’m going to be using for that two-and-a-half hour period every night.” Of equal importance is actually inhabiting the cities he’s playing: as he explains, “[The Jersey Boys company makes] a really good effort to see what the high points are in different areas or different cities.” Again, each actor has their own approach. Sarah Darling, for instance, who plays Valli’s second act love interest Lorraine, ran the Toronto Marathon. Bwarie prefers finding unique places to chill. In Toronto, his favourite spots include Tabouli, the Distillery (“kind of a cool hang”), and the College Street Bar—specifically on Sunday nights when soul-funk outfit Soular has a regular gig.
When talk turns to Soular—or anything music-related, for that matter—Bwarie becomes visibly animated. He’s a well-rounded artist. Aside from singing, which he’s been doing professionally since he was eight years old, Bwarie also writes, produces, and directs; his acting, meanwhile, is gaining him wider exposure, and next year he’ll be appearing as “Frankie Valet” in the movie Race to Witch Mountain, opposite Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. the Rock). Yet none of those topics get him nearly as excited as talk of music. Right now he’s into what he describes as “a very heavy stage of what I will categorize as lounge/jazz/vocals from the late-1950s to the late-1960s.” But then he’s immediately name-dropping a song called “Squeeze Me” by the Dutch band Kraak & Smaak, which shows he isn’t particularly dogmatic about what he’s listening to, as long as he’s listening to something. “I love music; everything about it,” he says, although it soon becomes apparent that he’s understating things. For Joseph Leo Bwarie, it’s less a matter of him loving music and more of matter of music being integral to his persona. In that sense, Jersey Boys might be the perfect vehicle for him, a musical that allows him to hone his craft while exploring and celebrating music he genuinely loves. To quote another famous American pop classic: “Who could ask for anything more?”
Bwarie and the rest of the current company will be in town until December 6 before moving on to Denver; afterwards, a brand-new, all-Canadian cast of Jersey Boys will be taking their place and beginning an indefinite run (the new company is still being finalized). Still, it doesn’t sound like Bwarie’s in any particular rush to do anything else just yet: as he puts it, “I love Jersey Boys, I love what I’m doing, I love the people that I’m working with.” Why wouldn’t he? Joseph Leo Bwarie has worked his way into the role of a lifetime, yet managed to remain remarkably unaffected in spite of his success. It’s enough to put a bounce in any actor’s step.
Tickets for Jersey Boys are available from $55 at Ticketmaster by calling 416-872-1111 or online at JerseyBoysToronto.com. Dancap also offers Prix Fixe fine dining on-site at the Toronto Centre for the Arts starting from $39.50 per person. For details, visit dancapcatering.com or call 416-644-3665.
All photos by Joan Marcus.