How many jukebox musicals have come and gone from our theatres over the years? Too many to count. Some had an engrossing storyline but forgettable, obscure songs; others had a compelling score with a weak storyline forcibly shoehorned around the hits. And a very few have it all; strong, interesting narrative, catchy hummable tunes and a plethora of talent to carry it all along. Those are the ones with staying power.
Jersey Boys, now in its 6th year in the West End and recently transferred to the Piccadilly Theatre, is one of those happy few. The story of four young, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, Italian-American boys from New Jersey and how they became the Four Seasons is entertaining, if not riveting, and because it focuses on the progress of the group the songs fit neatly into the narrative without ever feeling contrived. And what songs they are. If you grew up in the sixties you will know what to expect; however for me and, I suspect, many other members of the audience, it was a constant stream of “Ooh, I didn’t know they wrote that!” moments. So many of them; ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘Oh What A Night’, ‘Bye-Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye)’, have become an intrinsic part of our culture through films, adverts and cover versions, to the point where we never even consider where they first came from.
The story is told from the viewpoint, alternately, of all four members of the band, giving an interestingly rounded and varied perspective on the events. Proceedings are dominated, at first, by Jon Boydon as swaggering, short-fused Tommy De Vito but later, just as happened with the group, the song writer Bob Gaudio, played by Edd Post, begins to take over the reins. Behind them Michael Watson embodies the transformation of Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, short skinny street rat, into Frankie Valli – still short, still skinny, but rapidly becoming a giant of the airwaves and a hero to the man in the street, “the guy pumping your gas, the pretty waitress in the diner with circles under her eyes”. Valli with an I, not a Y; as his feisty future wife, Mary tells him, “Y is a bullshit letter. It’s not a consonant, it’s not a vowel, what is it?” The final member of the group, Nick Massai played by Matt Nalton (a giant next to the diminutive Watson) remains pretty much a bland cipher until the second act, when he begins to come into his own.
In fact, most of the story seems to happen in Act Two. Act One merely serves to set the scene; the tough beginnings where the boys are literally knocking on doors (“come back when you’re black!”), the mob connections, Tommy’s propensity for self-destruction, the search for a name for the group. They finally settle on the Four Seasons, a name stolen from a bowling alley who turned down their gig. The stories are interesting, but they feel fleshless, anecdotal, and despite the slick pace, over-long. The set, despite the Lichtenstein-esque cartoons projected above, is minimalist, the industrial scaffolding framework providing little distraction for the eye when the attention wanders.
Boy, do they come back with a bang after the interval, though. The story is action packed and the cast act their hearts out. Aside from the extraordinarily gifted principal quartet, acting, singing and dancing with enviable ease, the entire supporting cast is strong, with special mention going to Sean Mulligan as the flamboyant Bob Crewe, making the extravagant most of an otherwise unrewarding part, and to Nicola Brazil as Frankie’s long suffering, razor-tongued wife Mary. The hits begin to flow thick and fast. Watson perfectly captures the keening falsetto of Valli’s voice, the harmonies are pitch perfect, the dancing is era-appropriately rigid. The build-up to ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ is so cleverly staged, so exquisitely protracted that when the first notes sounded a breathy, delighted “Aaaaaah!” filled the theatre. There is a moment of very clever staging where the boys have their backs to the audience, singing into a void at the back of the stage which, by dint of ingenious lighting and sound, really does appear to be a stadium full of over-excited Four Seasons fans.
There are lots of laughs, but also some tragic moments. “Why does everybody leave?” laments Frankie at one point, woefully contemplating the smoking ruins of his dream. Fear not, though; writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice wisely ramp up the joy factor quick-smart, and the night ends on a euphoric, chart-topping, toe-tapping high. The roof is raised, the applause seems to go on for ever. The audience wanders out into the night, laughing, humming and singing.
This is a musical which it is impossible not to enjoy on some level. Six years and counting in London theatres, and I suspect it will be here for many more. It certainly deserves to be.
Review by Genni Trickett
Evenings: Tuesday to Saturday 7.30pm
Matinees: Tuesday and Saturday 3.00pm, and Sunday 5.00pm
Running Time: 2 hours 30 minutes
Age Restrictions: Recommended for ages 12 and over. No children under 4 allowed.
Read our previous interviews with Jersey Boys’ Cast:
Jon Boydon, Nicola Brazil, Lucy Martin, Tee Jaye and Matt Wycliffe
Friday 2nd May 2014