When Jersey Boys first hit the West End about six years ago I was quite keen to see it as I have always enjoyed the music of the Four Seasons. Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t quite so keen, however, so we’ve never seen the show together in London. But as fate would have it, a couple of years ago when she was in New York on business there was an organised trip to see it, so she had no choice but to go. She reported back that she quite enjoyed it, but felt that the documentary/narration structure was a bit, well, tedious. So it was with good grace that she accepted the challenge of seeing it again when it toured to Milton Keynes, as I still wanted to see it. And then, in another unexpected twist, would you believe, she got called away back to New York on business again and so missed it. You couldn’t make it up. As the Crown Prince of Bedford has just discovered he’s partial to the music of Frankie Valli, there was no need for her seat to go empty.
In case you don’t know – although I’m sure you do – Jersey Boys is the tale of the rise and fall of The Four Seasons. Nothing to do with Vivaldi, a Channel Island tax haven or some guys whose mums have warned them it’s cold outside; this is the group from New Jersey (hereafter known as Noo Joisy), responsible for falsetto-based hits such as Walk Like a Man and Sherry (in the 60s) and more mainstream pop in the 70s like December 63 and Who Loves You. I clearly remember my father absolutely loving Walk Like a Man, and it’s one of the first songs I can recall from my childhood. Their 70s hits were an important part of my teenager years; you know how some songs always remind you of a particular occasion? I have a special fondness for Silver Star, which always takes me back to one, carefree, happy, summer’s day in 1975. I was sorry to see it doesn’t feature in the show.
The Four Seasons weren’t always named as such. They first started out as the Variety Trio, consisting of Tommy DeVito with his brother Nick and their friend Nick Massi. It wasn’t music that united them at that time as much as their fondness for going in and out of prison. The story takes us from those early years, where Tommy discovers and nurtures Frankie Castellucio (Valli) into becoming a singing sensation, through to their meeting Bob Gaudio, who becomes the fourth Season, and the man who writes the big hits. This is when the group is riding high. Things, inevitably, start to fade with the discovery of Tommy’s massive debts, and the personal falling-out between Tommy and Frankie over Tommy’s chatting up Frankie’s new girlfriend. Tommy leaves, Nick leaves; Bob gives in to the fact that he hates performing; so it is left to Frankie alone to become a front man for a new backing group. There are personal highs and lows throughout the show for all the group members, and each of them narrates a part of the story – Spring and Summer for the rise of the Seasons; Fall and Winter for the decline. It ends with each of the band members explaining what it was to be part of this amazing enterprise. I found it surprisingly moving.
This is a really enjoyable production of a lively and engaging show. It’s packed with enjoyable tunes, not only originally by the Four Seasons but also from other early 60s performers; and the regular troubles and conflicts within the ever-changing group line-up keep a dramatic intensity going that provides a backbone to the story. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book is full of wit and attitude; as well as the Seasons themselves there are many fascinating and well-fleshed out peripheral characters; and the performance of the music, by both the actors and the band, is stunning throughout. You know how some musicals can be really over-amplified and thus the sound is distorted or it jars your eardrums and makes them hurt? The volume for this production is perfect; sufficiently loud to be dynamic and exciting, whilst still being, if it isn’t too old-fashioned an observation, sensible.
Tim Driesen is an astonishing Frankie Valli. His vocal impersonation of his original falsettos is spot-on; you wouldn’t know you weren’t listening to Mr Valli himself. There’s a great energy to his performance, but he also conveys the personal sadness that the character experiences with great pathos. Sam Ferriday presents Bob Gaudio as clean-cut, ambitious, and assertive; having much greater natural intelligence than his co-members; and his re-interpretation of the lyrics of Oh What A Night (December 63) means that song will never sound the same again.
Lewis Griffiths is a terrific Nick Massi – his intimidating presence lurking ominously in the background in the same way that his “doo-wops” lurk in the background of the Four Seasons songs. When his character finally comes to life and he gains his voice it adds a huge amount to the drama. In the performance I saw, Tommy DeVito was played by understudy Henry Davis and he was brilliant. A wisecracking, big-headed Noo Joisy louse, with his sense of his own importance becoming progressively more massively over-inflated as his actual influence on and contribution to the group declines; a really strong performance. Additionally the four guys together perform incredibly convincingly. Their outdated but impeccably smart dance moves that are carried out with apparently effortless ease conjure up an innocent sophistication that seems completely alien today – but it’s mesmerising on stage.
I really enjoyed Damian Buhagiar’s funny and punchy performance as the young Joe Pesci, introducing Bob Gaudio to the rest of the band and trying (unsuccessfully) to muscle in on their limelight; Matt Gillett gives lyricist Bob Crewe a very credible characterisation as a hard as nails producer tempered with a fluffy coating of camp; and Sean Kingsley is a strikingly effective gangster Gyp DeCarlo, blubbing at Valli’s sentimental rendition of My Mother’s Eyes, whilst looking as though he could tear you limb from limb any second. And hats off to musical supervisor Ron Melrose; the band is simply ace. I was perhaps a little surprised that the end of the show didn’t climax into a stand-up, no holding back, concert-style finale, like Sunny Afternoon; but no, it finishes with a simple rendition of Who Loves You, and that’s that. Not a concert; just like a proper musical, really.
Jersey Boys attracts a wide range of theatregoers, from the very young to those who would have already have been about a bit during the group’s 60s heyday. It went down massively well in the theatre, with a very enthusiastic standing ovation. It would certainly help your enjoyment of this show if you’re already a Valli/Four Seasons fan, but even if not, the fascinating backstory of the group’s various stages and levels of success is definitely a tale worth telling. Mrs C told me I’d be singing Walk Like a Man for days afterwards. She wasn’t wrong.
P.S. It appears that not everyone felt that the volume was perfect. During the interval and at the end there were some people remonstrating with the theatre management that it wasn’t loud enough up in the Gods. Unfortunate for them, I guess; but any louder and it wouldn’t have been half so enjoyable in the stalls. Some you win, some you lose.