Jersey Boys tells the remarkable story of the rise to fame of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. From their humble beginnings in a blue-collar neighbourhood in Newark, New Jersey, to their acceptance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the band has contributed countless influential songs to the popular musical canon. At the Prince Edward Theatre.
Jersey Boys tells the remarkable story of the rise to fame of the vocal pop band Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. From their humble beginnings in a blue-collar neighbourhood in Newark, New Jersey, to their acceptance into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the band has contributed countless influential songs to the popular musical canon: “Sherry”, “Walk Like A Man” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, to name only a few. Here, each of the four members Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi and Frankie Valli share their different perspectives on the history of the band.
While some jukebox musicals only excel in awkwardly pressing previously released songs into thinly spun narratives, Jersey Boys, with its biographical story, handles the transition of chart hits onto the stage much more smoothly. In the same vein as Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, personal anecdotes and tragic moments are interspersed with renditions of some of The Four Seasons’ most successful hits. For those who aren’t hardcore fans of the band, which was originally formed in 1960, there are several aha moments. For example, when the first bars of “Big Girls Don’t Cry” start to play, the audience suddenly becomes aware who actually penned the famous opening song from Dirty Dancing.
The cage-like set proves to be very versatile and can convincingly be turned into a prison, mobster hideout, a recording studio or even a church with only a few stylised alterations.
Atmospheric background projections inspired by pictures of American photographer George Tice or colourful Pop Art illustrations reminiscent of Roy Lichtenstein’s art help the fast-paced action, especially in the first part of the first act which seems a bit rushed and fragmented in places. Because of the distinct focus on telling the story and introducing a lot of characters, the music steps into the background. It is a bold decision for a musical, but one that pays off because it lends more gravitas to scenes of a more emotional nature later on. Half an hour in, the show settles into a more comfortable but still snappy pace and allows more space for story and songs to interlink.
Behind Frankie Valli’s “angelic” voice there are surprising things to discover about the Four Seasons. As many modern day pop stars can vouch for, coming of age in the limelight is not easy, and performer Dan Burton does a convincing job in portraying the impressionable 17-year old Francis Castellucio who grows into the worldly-wise entertainer Frankie Valli.
There’s a lot more going on under the hood of this musical than one would imagine from the outset and the glossy surface. The characters find themselves confronted with various figurations of family and delicate questions of friendship and loyalty. Themes of manhood and creative power struggles are explored and more than one relationship falls victim to success. Several poignant moments let us witness how show business is not always about glitter jackets and perfectly coiffed quiffs (and here the production and costume design deserves an honourable mention), but about broken hearts and broken promises too. There are also hints about the involvement of the mafia in the success of the group, and we even meet now famous actor Joe Pesci as a kid meddling with other people’s affairs (Ben Jennings in an eerily accurate impersonation), adding a splash of Italian-American attitude that television audiences have come to love in The Sopranos. In a way, Jersey Boys is as much a success story of a music group as it is a surprisingly unaffected retelling of the American Dream.
Matthew Wycliffe gives a beautifully understated and convincing performance as Bobby Gaudino, the band’s song writer. And there is a monologue in which he claims that they might not have caused a musical revolution like The Beatles, but in their time they were nothing less than the musical heroes of America’s working class.
However, even with all of the praise, it has to be mentioned that the show I went to see had a lot of understudies performing instead of the main cast, and there were some obvious technical difficulties with the sound mixing. For a show that has been running for over four years, this is simply inexcusable. Also, if vocal pop from the 60s isn’t your kind of music and jukebox musicals leave you cold, you’d better give this one a pass.
But, generally, it’s not hard to see why this musical has been showered with awards all over the world and this London production is no exception. It is funny, sometimes touching, has a great look and definitely a unique sound that’ll stay with you long after the last curtain call. “Oh What A Night” indeed!