Book: Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Music: Bob Gaudio
Lyrics: Bob Crewe
Director: Des McAnuff
Reviewer: Gareth Davies
Comparatively few bands have had the dubious pleasure of seeing their back catalogue of hits plundered for a jukebox musical. Abba, most famously, popularised the trend with Mamma Mia!, and We Will Rock You, the Queen musical, proved you could spin a truly fantastical tale from little more than some classic rock lyrics.
Jersey Boys takes the concept a stage further, by using the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to tell the band’s own story – from rags to riches, and back to rags again. And then (because it’s not a true musical without a happy ending) back to riches in time for the grand finale.
Quite how it has become as enduringly popular as it has – winning multiple Best Musical awards and touring globally since being first staged in 2005 – is a bit of a mystery. Strip away the songs and there’s little else of dramatic interest here, with the show unfolding rather like a Wikipedia entry rather than finding ways to truly engage the audience in the action.
The shows utilises a nifty device of allowing each of the band members to narrate their own perspective on the story, spread across four sections titled (without further reasoning) Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter. It’s a neat idea, but fails to capitalise on the dramatic possibilities of such a concept. With half a century of action to cover, from the band’s origins in the mid-1950s to the grand finale of a Hall of Fame induction in 1999 and beyond, much of the show resorts to telling us what’s happening, rather than showing us in any meaningful way.
Founding member Tommy Devito (Simon Bailey) is played as a fast-talking ex-con who can hold a tune, who tasks fellow founder member Nick Massi (Lewis Griffiths) with coaching young Frankie Valli (Michael Watson) in the business of show.
The early scenes explaining the chaotic pre-Four Seasons period when the band had a different name almost every week, and a different line-up – depending who was currently serving prison sentences – are rushed and mechanical, fragments of songs interspersing the action to move us through the early years. It’s only when Bob Gaudio (Declan Egan) is introduced to the group that the story – and the production – starts to find a focus.
Unfortunately the songs frequently serve little function except to move action along. They rarely reflect any of the production’s limited emotional range, and even less frequently are they performed in full. In a story where the music is already the strongest material on the stage, they seem curiously outside of the action itself.
The tell-don’t-show formula aside, the production is also showing its age. It would be hard to imagine a show opening in 2019 which takes such a casual attitude to sexual politics, even if it is intended to be representative of life in the 1950s and ’60s. Women are written off (and barely written at all) as being either type A or type B, both descriptors given for comic effect, in a moment of stage business that would have been borderline offensive even in 2005.
Lacklustre staging, reminiscent of a prison gantry, offers very little creative function, and curiously out of context cartoon illustrations add only a note of confusion to a production which lacks much visual flair.
It is a relief, then, that the musical ability of the cast are top-notch. Michael Watson in particular manages Valli’s trademark falsetto admirably, but the music’s harmonies would be nothing without the whole company pitching in as they do. It’s a shame the songs aren’t given more interesting arrangements, or integrated into the storytelling a little more successfully.
Hitting the high notes in only a literal sense, fans of the music may be better advised to seek out the original Jersey Boy himself, as Frankie Valli continues touring and performing well into his ninth decade.
Runs until 2 March 2019 | Image: Contributed