Director: Des McAnuff
Book: Marshall Brickman / Rick Elice
Music / Lyrics: Bob Gaudio / Bob Crewe
Reviewer: Helen Tope
If you had to place a bet on how Jersey Boys begins, I would imagine a French rap would not figure at the top of your list. A startling opening for a jukebox musical, Jersey Boys declares its point of difference right from the beginning.
Jersey Boys tells the story of how Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons rose through the ranks of 1960’s pop to become a legend worthy of admission to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Starting from New Jersey, Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi worked smart by writing their own songs and cutting handsome production deals. Their brushes with the law, combined with Gaudio’s gift for songwriting, made them a unique presence on the circuit. Definitely not well-bred – they were too talented to ignore.
While the language gets a bit salty, you have to remember this is not an ordinary musical. This is New Jersey, and here different rules apply. It gives the production a layer of authenticity; the dialogue is sharp, witty and clever.
The big difference with Jersey Boys is that with a story this good, you don’t need to tie the songs around a patchy premise. All the drama is built in. The songs are placed into a pre-existing narrative, enhancing and illustrating the highs and lows of the Four Seasons story. The tensions, the rivalries – it all rings true because it is.
The musical sections are performed with real energy – polished, but not perfect – giving the songs dimension and grit. These songs have been smoothed out over the decades, but they started as ground-breaking hits. Can’t Take My Eyes Off You was considered an art-house track; too complex to be commercial. What was once radical is now pegged as easy-listening, but Jersey Boys does the music of the Four Seasons a great service by not allowing it to be bogged down in nostalgia. These are real boys – fighting, swearing, boozing – creating music with nuance and edge.
This is a musical that sells itself on the ability to persuade us that we are watching four friends fight their way to glory, and the way their arguments intersect is completely believable. As the source of much of that tension, Simon Bailey as Tommy DeVito is infuriating and funny, moment to moment. Declan Egan as Bob Gaudio delivers a standout performance; confident and charming. Playing the quiet one at the back – and there is always a quiet one at the back – Lewis Griffiths has the toughest job as Nick Massi, but wins us over with killer comic timing. Casting Frankie Valli is possibly the Everest of musical casting, but Michael Watson handles the octaves with ease. Between them, they create a convincing portrait of friends who discover that fame does not wipe away your problems, it merely creates new ones.
Jersey Boys is a brilliant homage to the working-class hero. At the time of the group’s inception, there were only a few routes open to these boys. In 2018, there are still neighbourhoods where options remain limited, and Jersey Boys offers a shot of optimism that talent, eventually, rises to the top. This musical is more than feel-good entertainment, it makes a compelling case for why access to the arts is so important. Without working-class voices, the musical landscape becomes derivative. The music and lyrics of Gaudio and Crewe rewrote the rules on what pop music could be. Will working-class artists today – Oasis, Manic Street Preachers – have the same durability? Jersey Boys not only harks back to a golden age of pop, it asks more troubling questions about its future. It’s a jukebox musical that moves to its own tune – and you have to admire the chutzpah.
Runs until Saturday 28 April | Image: Contributed