Jersey Boys is full of great, timeless songs, and has a great cast, but its four plotlines turn it into one hell of a convoluted musical, says David Mullane.
Jersey Boys, the 2005 Broadway hit that opened in the West End in 2008, is now touring the UK and Ireland. Telling the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, it’s a fast-paced, breathless jukebox musical, starting in the 1950s with the origin of the band and ending up with their induction in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
The Four Seasons were one of the best-selling bands of all time, having sold an estimated 100 million records worldwide and this show crams as many of their hits as it can into its two acts, including “Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Walk Like a Man”, “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”, “My Eyes Adored You”, “Opus 17 (Don’t You Worry ‘bout Me)”, “Bye, Bye, Baby (Baby Goodbye)”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, “Working My Way Back to You” and “Who Loves You”. The list of songs they had to exclude is as long.
The touring cast are a talented bunch of vocalists and they’d need to be because The Four Seasons oeuvre calls for very tight harmonising, vigorous choreography and wide, acrobatically-inclined vocal ranges, particularly for the Frankie Valli role. The very first performer cast in the role suffered vocal damage and was forced to leave the company after only four months.
If the show was just a tribute concert, it would be worth the ticket price alone. It really is a treat to listen to this great set of hits performed back to back in a spectacular setting. It’s a shame, then, that the story gets in the way.
The story of the band and the lives of the four members are complicated, convoluted, detailed and sometimes incredible, and perhaps in some other medium they would be successfully told but the musical is not the right medium. There are so many choppy, disjointed short scenes in the first act that you simply can’t keep up, and it’s a shame because you can tell there’s eagerness and excitement in this production. They love the story and they want to share it, but they’ve gotten carried away in the detail. In a way, it’s not surprising that the story seems to hijack the production as the band members, particularly Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, were heavily involved in the creation of the show.
In another way, it is surprising that the book drags the music down because it has been co-written by Marshall Brickman, Woody Allen’s co-author for some of his most successful screenplays, including Annie Hall, Manhattan and Manhattan Murder Mystery. Valiantly, alongwith his co-writer Bob Crewe, Brickman strives to get to grips with the convoluted tale, structuring it neatly into four seasonal sections – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter – which correspond with the band’s trajectory. The writers have said in interview that they took a Rashomon-style approach to the story. Having interviewed the four band members, they realised that the band had four different perspectives of their time together and so the story is now told from four points of view – no wonder it’s so cluttered.
The staging is lean and flexible, and must be so to allow for so many scenes and set changes, so there isn’t any scope for major set pieces. At times, cameras roll on to the stage when the band are performing on television programmes like American Bandstand and the audience is treated to a live feed of the band on a screen above the stage. That screen is also used for animated projections and illustrations, designed fantastically by Michael Clark in a Pop Art style, reminiscent in particular of the work of Roy Lichtenstein.
Jersey Boys is a confident, brash show which just gets a little caught up in the many beats of its story. Although you have to wait for nearly an hour into the first act as the show trips through plot point after plot point, once it finally reaches its first big number, the band’s first number one hit, “Sherry”, the theatre becomes alive. More than once, the production came to a halt on opening night, forced to wait for the applause to die down, such was the audience’s reaction to the music.
Jersey Boys runs at The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre until April 18, booking here
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