Writers: Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Musical Director: Ron Melrose
Director: Des McAnuff
Reviewer: Jim Gillespie
The band may have come from the wrong side of the tracks, but musically, the tracks created by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons could scarcely have been righter. 16 US top 40 hits between 1962-64, countless cover versions since then, 175 million records shipped, and a distinctive vocal sound provide the musical foundations for this show.
But this is no nostalgic jukebox catalogue crowbarred into a narrative. The songs have longevity in themselves, but the show relies on the story behind the music, the band, and their origins in the blue-collar industrial city of New Jersey; a few miles from New York, but a world away from its glamour and glitz. Jersey Boys is more biopic than greatest hits shuffle. Or more properly, four intertwined biopics.
The four central characters each give their own take on the Four Seasons story, and we see each of their perspectives in turn, as their backgrounds, contrasting values and weaknesses, while competing creative differences shape and break the cohesiveness epitomised by their vocal harmonies. Simon Bailey, as rough diamond Tommy DeVito, provides the initial drive and energy to bring the band together; while the more shrewd and sophisticated Bob Gaudio, played by Declan Egan, provides its creative essence. Michael Watson captures Frankie Valli’s vulnerability as well as his raw singing talent, and Lewis Griffiths turns oddball bassist Nick Massi into a sympathetic if contradictory character. All deliver convincing New York inflections, whatever their own origins.
Other actors portray the hoodlums, girlfriends, record chiefs, hangers-on, etc., in a well drilled, fast-paced series of set pieces, charting the rags to riches trajectory of the band, and the brushes with danger and disaster which accompanied it. The shadow of the mob hangs over much of the story, embodied in Mark Heenehan’s take on the Godfather Gyp DeCarlo. But he remains a sentimental supporter rather than a menacing presence. Joel Elferink camps up the part of record producer Bob Crewe, and manages to encompass the cupidity, sleaziness, and ruthlessness of the various hit factories that kept the pop charts vibrant. The women in the lives of the bandmates remain background figures, only featuring to illuminate the leading men. Even Valli’s relationship with his troubled daughter seems either peripheral or set up to indulge a sentimental solo.
Musically the show is spot on. The boys sing well together. Michael Watson has mastered the range and power of Valli’s voice, and the six-piece band faithfully reproduce a considerable chunk of the Four Seasons repertoire. Almost all the hits are here, and the final 15 minutes felt more like a tribute concert than a theatre performance.
The set is simple but flexible. A scaffold with an upper gantry allows for multi-level action, and a projection screen helps to set scenes, or occasionally display contemporary newsreels to anchor the history of the band’s progress. Props and furniture are used sparingly to create specific locations and are introduced and removed with silky efficiency by the ensemble. In such a minimalist set, lighting has to work hard to create an appropriate atmosphere, and it is always spot on. Most noticeably in the hospital scene following the death of Valli’s daughter, and when the band perform to the back of the stage and the audience is blinded by the concert lighting.
The writer, Rick Elice, refers to the show as ‘a play about four guys who wrote music’. But while the charm and energy of the music has been meticulously crafted and reproduced, the drama underpinning its creation serves largely as a backdrop, glimpsed in snatches as the songbook plays out. And while there is a story to be told, and it has real drama in it, the music takes centre stage.
The truth may be that the Four Seasons story, and their considerable catalogue of hit singles, are together too large to fit into one vehicle. But everyone in Sheffield’s packed Lyceum Theatre seemed happy to be along for the well-oiled ride.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed