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JERSEY BOYS *** 1/2 The August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52nd St.; (212) 239-6200.

WE'VE had Buddy Holly, Lieber & Stoller, ABBA, Elvis, the Beach Boys and John Lennon - and now, opening last night at the Au gust Wilson Theatre, we have a bio-musical on that resilient, all but amorphous group, the Four Seasons.

And, believe it not, it's terrific - with a young John Lloyd Young singing the bleating, stratospheric doo-wop of the hard-driving Frankie Valli in a way that rivals Frankie Valli.

But that's not even the best part.

It's a Broadway commonplace that the most important thing about a musical is the book - but no one goes out singing the book, so it's a commonplace often forgotten.

Then comes a show like "Jersey Boys," with a book, by Broadway newcomers Marshall Brickman (Woody Allen's one-time co-writer) and Rick Elice, that's as tight and absorbing as an Arthur Miller play, whipped up by director Des McAnuff into a controlled rock frenzy. That's when you realize just what a book can do. A glitzy, sleight-of-hand staging never hurt, either.

The show is simply the complex story of a pop group, with its ups and downs, tensions and battles. The Four Seasons, after all, are one of the few groups that withstood the British invasion of the mid-'60s.

The story, and more especially the treatment, lends itself to the telling and the staging, which seamlessly combines the flashy elements of rock concerts with the straightforward narrative.

It's an engrossing tale of doggedly deserved blue-collar success, painted and tainted with the overtones of personal ambition, plus the occasional stealthy undertones of mob involvement. After all, we're talking New Jersey here!

The musical is helped by the Beatles-like intrigue of the four fascinating principal players.

The group's fortunes, as the show graphically depicts via Michael Clark's stylish projections of Roy Lichtenstein-style cartoons, actually followed the pattern of spring, summer, autumn and winter.

Bookwriters Brickman and Elice have taken a few poetic liberties and made some strategic omissions in tracing the group's from its Jersey street-corner aspirations to the group's 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but the show holds together like glue on parchment.

And then there's the music, mostly by Bob Gaudio with lyrics by the group's main producer, Bob Crewe - such great early-'60s standards as "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man" and Valli's later big solo comeback number, "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You."

The cast is plain wonderful - many of them coming from director McAnuff's original tryout of the show at his La Jolla Playhouse.

Young, as Valli, acts with the kind of conviction you'd expect from a John Turturro, and he sings his high-pitched heart out. But the other guys also score beautifully.

A slick Christian Hoff provides Tommy DeVito with all the right wiseguy attitude, and J. Robert Spencer offers a wry balance as the reserved, almost taciturn Nick Massi, who terms himself the group's Ringo.

Completing the quartet is Daniel Reichard, who, with his shy reticence, seems perfect as Bob Gaudio.

With its vibrant choreography by Sergio Trujillo, its imaginative settings by Klara Zieglerova, spot-on costumes by Jess Goldstein and arena-style lighting by Howell Binkley, "Jersey Boys" is no nostalgic stroll down rock's Memory Lane.

It's a show still dynamically alive in music while, as a drama, it catches the very texture, almost the actual smell, of its time.

Copyright 2004 NYP Holdings, Inc. All rights reserved.

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