The tale of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is less well known than that of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, or even the Bee Gees, yet their music, like the other three groups, is instantly recognisable. Tony Award-winning Broadway hit Jersey Boys, which is currently playing at the Prince Edward, puts that right, bringing the group’s story to the stage. Matthew Amer was at the UK premiere and hoped to be declaring Oh! What A Night.
The wonderful thing about Jersey Boys is the balancing act of that which the audience knows and recognises, and that which is new and surprising to them. Many of the Four Seasons’s collection of hits – Sherry, Walk Like A Man, Big Girls Don’t Cry – whether we realise it or not, are buried in our subconscious; the story of how the band grew, evolved and eventually imploded is, to most audience members, entirely new.
Being boys from New Jersey – New York’s less fashionable, less wealthy, less salubrious neighbour – the band’s story involves petty theft, time in prison, organised crime, adultery, huge debts and an incredible show of loyalty and honour.
Unlike other ‘jukebox musicals’ there is no shoehorning of songs to fit in with an elaborate plot. Writers Marshal Brickman and Rick Elice, together with director Des McAnuff, place the well known tunes much like a soundtrack, illustrating feelings and moods, or simply being performed as the band would have performed them, at gigs, on television or in the recording studio. The writing is concise without being brief, moving the story along at a pace which feels slick rather than rushed.
The show’s structure sees each band member taking his turn to tell the story from his point of view. Glenn Carter’s manipulative, unforgiving Tommy DeVito is the architect of the group who can’t accept other members becoming more powerful than him, or manage to leave his hoodlum childhood behind. Philip Bulcock’s quiet, unassuming Nick Massi is happily swept along by everyone else until he is pushed too far. The introduction of Stephen Ashfield’s confident, articulate, gifted Bob Gaudio signals the start of the group’s rise to fame. But Ryan Molloy inevitably steals the limelight as the almost inimitable Frankie Valli, his striking falsetto tone entrancing the first night audience.
It is not just about the singing; in both Molloy’s Valli and Ashfield’s Gaudio the audience sees the growth of two giants of the music industry from teenage kids to the men they became, and the tension and tragedy that took them there. When the real Valli and Gaudio joined their performing counterparts on stage at the first night’s finale, the tale of kids looking for a way out of New Jersey was complete. em>MA