Dancing like a man with Jersey Boys

Published April 8, 2015

There is a second, when the iconic red jacket of Jersey Boys is resting lightly on your shoulders and you catch a glimpse of an otherwise ordinary hand projecting from the garment’s scarlet arm, that everything is right with the world.

You can try and fight it, but the grin will stretch across your face as irresistibly as a Frankie Valli and the Four Season’s track sneaks into your subconscious and lingers tunefully for weeks after you heard it.

If you think it’s just me who feels this way, an easily impressed arts journo who’s never stepped professionally onto a stage in my life, think again. The newest Jersey Boy, Gary Watson, who took the role of Nick Massi just a month ago, felt exactly the same. “It’s so iconic. It’s so synonymous with the show. It’s a big deal,” he said, as we chatted in a bar at the Piccadilly Theatre following my Jersey Boys training session.

Training session? That’s right. I could call it a makeover and dance class, but that wouldn’t entirely do it justice. For while the moves performed night after night by the actors playing the Four Seasons – Michael and Gary Watson, Jon Boydon, Edd Post – might look simple, a side step here and a finger click there, they come with an absolute precision and a very distinctive attitude.

It takes a week of training, Post says, to learn “the basics and the vocabulary. Once you’ve got that grounded feeling to all the choreography down and in your body it becomes easier to apply it.” A few minutes on the Piccadilly stage, then, is not going to do it, as I found out.

Sidestepping, if I say so myself, is easy. Sidestepping on the beat is achievable with a miniscule amount of musical ability. And you don’t have to be a rhythmic gymnast to sidestep and finger click at the same time. But sidestep with a barely discernible hip twist, left arm held in a jacket pocket position, firmly but casually, never stiffly, finger clicking with the right arm, hand facing down and moving just a few inches while looking up at a fixed point at the back of the dress circle and holding your body in a way that say “Yes, I am Frankie Valli. I have sold 175 million records worldwide,” and it all becomes a touch more stressful.

This is where the jacket coms into its own. Not necessarily the red one that, incidentally, was only introduced for the London version of Jersey Boys; before that most of the show promo featured silver jackets. But slipping into any jacket and smart shoes, as the cast do in rehearsals, helps the performers to carry themselves in the correct way. Back straight. Shoulder back. Chin up. Meaning business.

For Watson, Michael not Gary, it even helps him transition from young Frankie to Frankie the man.

There was a time when I thought taking to the stage of an empty but intimate theatre – “When we bow at the end we feel like we could shake the audiences’ hands, give them a little kiss on the cheek,” says Michael Watson – would have been entirely beyond me. That time was a week before my training session when I had a costume fitting.

I don’t, this brief meeting confirmed, have a performer’s physique. I am carrying greater reserves of energy around my midriff in case of being stranded in a post-apocalyptic West End at a time when all restaurants have melted, than your average dancer.

This is happily no problem for the costume department – whose no nonsense approach also leads to the swift dispelling of my similarly non-actorly approach to disrobing in public – as waist-friendly trousers appear by the time I return to take to the stage.

Hair and make-up are similarly robust, taming my notoriously untameable hair with just one can of hairspray and dealing with a persistently returning finger curl with only minimum panic. No, I didn’t know what a finger curl was either.

It is, I guess, only to be expected of a long running West End show. They wouldn’t become long running without such stalwarts behind the scenes stars to support their onstage counterparts.

As far as audiences, who quite rightly don’t see the backstage wonders, are concerned, Boydon has his own ideas about what keeps them returning to the tale of four blue collar boys and their collection of astounding pop hits: “They know they’re going to get a band singing songs that they know and love, that takes them back to their youth or references in the past. Then they watch the show they get these four incredibly strong characters, they get a true story, which is epic in its drama and its highs and lows, and they come away with the sense of heart that the show’s got.”

Whatever they’ve got – and I’d throw a quartet of polished, precise, pretty perfect and patient leading men into the mix – it has consistently caught imaginations since 2008. Having been named on the This Morning Audience Award shortlist this year, I’m sure it’ll be walking like a man through the West End for years to come.

Related shows