Jersey Boys

Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe
Dodger Theatricals and Ambassador Theatre Group
Leeds Grand Theatre
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Not so long ago, audiences knew very little about the sixties American band The Four Seasons. Of course, they probably recognised some of the band’s biggest hits—not to mention Frankie Valli’s piercing falsetto—but they couldn't tell you much about the four original band members.

This all changed in 2005, when Jersey Boys erupted onto Broadway, where it would stay for 12 prosperous years. Since then, the production has travelled all over the world, breaking box-office records and scooping handfuls of awards, including ‘Best Musical’ at the Tonys in 2006 and the Oliviers in 2009.

Crucially, when someone mentions New Jersey now, we not only think of The Sopranos, Springsteen and Sinatra, we also think of the four-piece behind such indelible pop hits as “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)”.

Scripted by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, Jersey Boys chronicles the formation, success and eventual implosion of The Four Seasons. What soon becomes clear is the disparity between the bubble-gum cheerfulness of their music and the drama that went on behind the scenes. I was surprised to learn, for example, that all the band members had criminal records.

Frankie Valli (Michael Watson), with his extraordinary vocal range, may have been the star of the band, but Jersey Boys allows each of the other band members—songwriting wunderkind Bob Gaudio (James Winter), guitarist Tommy DeVito (Peter Nash) and bassist Nick Massi (Karl James Wilson)—to have their say. From these four perspectives comes a richly textured rendering of the band’s story, in which various aspects of their legend are contested.

I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with The Four Seasons. Depending on my mood, I can find their music either joyous or extremely irritating. However, I must say that Jersey Boys has adjusted my views on the band. From the band’s first performance of “Sherry”, I found myself swept away by their irrepressible harmonies.

All the songs are energetically performed, particularly by Michael Watson who does a terrific vocal impersonation of Valli, capturing both the tone of his voice and his prodigious vocal range. However, the calibre of the ensemble ensures that this is more than just a one-man show.

Peter Nash excels as Tommy DeVito, the guitarist who claims to have brought The Four Seasons together in the first place. Despite his myriad flaws (his gambling problem lands the band in trouble with the mob), he is a hugely likeable anti-hero. James Winter sings beautifully as Bob Gaudio, who wrote the music for all the band’s hits, and demonstrates a real skill for comedy. Karl James Wilson brings considerable charisma to the part of Nick Massi, in some ways the most down-to-earth member of the band. I’m also glad to report that they all cope brilliantly with the distinctive New Jersey accent.

There are several notable performances from the supporting cast. As Valli’s first wife, Tara Young manages to make a small role go a long way; the scene in which she convinces her future husband to change the spelling of his surname from Vally to Valli is one of the funniest in the show. Joel Elfrerink is on show-stealing form as Bob Crewe, the group’s delightfully camp lyricist, and Mark Heenehan brings authority and danger to the part of gangster Gyp DeCarlo.

Klara Zieglerova’s minimalist two-tier set is quickly and fluidly transformed into a range of different locations, helped enormously by Howell Binkley’s intelligent lighting design.

Thanks to Des McAnuff’s slick, fast-paced direction, the show amply holds your attention throughout the evening. That being said, there were several points in the show where I wanted the production to slow down so I could more fully appreciate what was going on. The show is slightly over-stuffed, meaning that certain moments (e.g. the death of Valli’s daughter) are deprived of their full dramatic weight.

I’d also argue that, while the show has a clear narrative arc, it occasionally loses the sense of time passing; this isn’t helped by the fact that the characters’ appearances never really change over the course of the evening.

Despite these caveats, I thought Jersey Boys was a hugely enjoyable show, and I have no doubt that it will continue to delight audience for years to come.

James Ballands