Jersey Boys

Book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, Music by Bob Gaudio, Lyrics by Bob Crewe
Prince Edward Theatre
(2008)

Production photo

It may be short on big-name stars but this musical biography of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is bound to be a hit.

The combination of a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, both new to the genre but with a wealth of experience in the case of the former working with Woody Allen on movies such as Annie Hall, and a stream of pop classics will ensure that visitors go home humming, uplifted but maybe mildly saddened.

Where director Des McAnuff's show really scores is in bringing on to stage the lives behind a musical phenomenon that almost matched that of the Beatles or the Rolling Stones in the 1960s. He does so by importing the whole of the American creative team that have made this show a long-running Broadway hit and introducing a highly-talented British cast.

Scenic designer Klara Zieglerova is more interested in speed than beauty, using a bare set backed by what looks like a zoo cage. She then whips in and out wheeled props to ensure that the action never slows.

The visual attractions are then left to projection designer Michael Clark, who uses sub-Roy Lichtenstein Pop Art cartoons that fit in well with a story that can feel a little too close to a soap to reflect reality.

Even so, the story of a bunch of rough Italian-American boys from Belleville, New Jersey, a state that later produced Bruce Springsteen, may not have been exaggerated as much as one might imagine, even when it resembles a low-violence version of The Godfather.

The early scenes mix biography with forgettable music, as an aspiring band constantly changes members to cover for prison sentences resulting from breaking and entering, apparently a common hobby for youngsters in the district.

Slowly, a quartet is formed by wild Tommy DeVito (Glenn Carter). He has two incredible strokes of luck, the first when he backs his judgement with a 16-year-old singer, Frankie Valli, who sings like an angel, periodically getting closer to a soprano than any man should. If anything, the second discovery, aided by future actor Joe Pesci, is even more important.

Bob Gaudio had a number two hit when he was only 15 and was destined to become the composer behind Little Shop of Horrors. He was an undoubted genius who wrote all of the best music for the band, as well as completing the quartet.

Overnight, or more accurately within three weeks, an impecunious cross-section of jail fodder is transformed into a number one band that had sold over a million copies of Sherry. Not only did their career take off with that song but so does a show, which until that point had been relatively pedestrian, if mildly entertaining.

Having launched into the stratosphere, Jersey Boys does not come down. The biography gives way to what is effectively a time-travelling rock concert as the audience is able to bop along to a series of hits including Big Girls Don't Cry, Walk Like a Man and December 1963 (Oh What a Night). By then, they are in raptures and probably unprepared for the biographical tragedies of the second half.

We have already seen the boys in prison and observed marriages collapsing as these young stars happily lapped up the adulation and favours of a never-ending troupe of gorgeous women.

After the interval, one of Valli's daughters dies of a drug overdose, Tommy's gambling lifestyle comes home to roost with a $1 million bill picked up by his pals and gradually the group falls apart. Tommy disappears to a Las Vegas golf course, the quiet man (Philip Bulcock's Nick Massi) walks off a tour for no apparent reason and then Gaudio steps behind the scenes.

Where any normal band would disappear forever, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, with the singer backed by a bunch of faceless nobodies, is projected into the limelight once more. There, the hits such as Working My Way Back to You and Bye Bye Baby just keep coming.

One of the nicest moments in the play comes as Bob Gaudio fights the record industry and the media to support a song that nobody likes. Eventually, he backs his judgement with his cash and perhaps the best song of all, Can't Take My Eyes Off You, is born.

All four actors playing the band members do a fine job both singing and acting, not to mention dancing 60s style with the aid of choreographer Sergio Trujillo.

As the best of the lot, it will be something of a surprise of Ryan Molloy does not fill a trophy cabinet with Best Musical Actor awards come the end of the year. He might also have a number one album before long, either with the soundtrack to this show or possibly one of his solo offerings.

Jersey Boys has almost perfect mix of sentimental storytelling and nostalgic music. The older generation will keep coming back and if New York's experience is anything to go by, their kids will be won over as well, guaranteeing that this show is here to stay.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher