‘Come back when you’re black’, says a record producer, before carelessly slamming the door in the faces of the hopeful, white four-piece band trying to make it big in Sixties’ America. Whether this encounter actually happened or not is left unsaid, but either way it’s funny because that record producer got it so wrong. Little could he have known that this band would go on to inspire one of the best tribute musicals of recent years: Jersey Boys.
Oh, what a night. From start to finish this jukebox musical based on said Sixties band, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, hits all the right notes.
It all starts with a bit of a wobble, as a tracksuited guy performs a modern-day rap of a song called ‘Ces soirees-la’. Just as the audience begins to wonder if they’ve got the right show, Tommy DeVito, one of the band’s original members, turns up and explains the rap is a cover of their famous hit, December 1963 (Oh What a Night).
And from then on, the musical doesn’t look back. Hit after hit is churned out, a conveyor belt of feelgood hits from ‘Oh, What a Night’ and ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ to ‘Bye Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye)’, ‘Walk like a Man’ and ‘Sherry’. It would take a hard, cynical soul not to be willingly bundled along on this infectious tide of enthusiasm. There were a lot of bottoms, young and old, swaying in their seats. Not bad for a band that took their name from a bowling alley that rejected them from a job.
The action is cleverly and chronologically structured into four seasons, each narrated by one of the four band members (Tommy DeVito is spring; Bob Gaudio, the band’s prodigious songwriter, is summer; Nick Massi, the Ringo of the band, takes autumn, and Franki Valli narrates winter). It’s a slick device (hats off to script writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) that adds spice to the band’s rags-to-riches story.
Not that it needs it. The band’s real-life background is a drama in itself – a whirlwind of jail cells, criminal records, and connections with the mob. What makes it even juicier is the fact the script is based on interviews with the real Four Seasons. When it came to DeVito, the band’s troublesome founding member, his version of events was completely different to the other three – practically handing the scriptwriters the storyline on a plate.
It makes for fascinating viewing. As each original band member confides his version of the story, the audience gets a range of viewpoints. In doing so, the story perfectly captures the thrills of life on the road, the girls, the drugs, the rock n roll of making it big. There’s real heart and humanity here, made better by the inventive staging. Bright pop art fills the screens above the stage, and authentic black and white footage of their screaming fans is cleverly mixed into a real-time feed of the cast performing.
Of course the slick storyline would be scuppered if it weren’t for this spot-on staging of the songs. Director Des McAnuff gets this right, too – smoothly weaving their hits into impressively fast-paced action. For four Italian-Americans from the wrong side of the tracks in New Jersey, the Four Seasons certainly cleaned up their act for their mainstream listeners. They might have walked like men, but they didn’t sound like them. Their bright, dapper suits and trademark elongation of every vowel (cry-yi-yi) is a case in point.
Ryan Molloy is the embodiment of Franki Valli (born Frankie Castellucio), all soaring falsettos and leading man charisma. There are also mega-watt support performances from Jon Boydon as the reckless and dynamic DeVito, and Edd Post as the educated Bob Gaudio. Even David McGranaghan captures the quiet Nick Massi who fades from the band.
There’s a reason why Jersey Boys is still around, seven years after it first swept up Tony Awards on Broadway. If a good musical is defined by a great storyline with cracking gags and a repertoire of catchy hits, then Jersey Boys has it all. That’s why it’ll be a long time before the West End waves Bye Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye) to this smash hit.
For tickets, visit http://www.showsinlondon.co.uk/show/jersey-boys