Wednesday March 19, 2008
Let's hear it for the Boys.
Jersey Boys is a blue-collar, meat-and-potatoes, straight-up-no-chaser kind of show, and I mean that as a compliment. It has a quality you rarely find in musicals - gritty honesty - as well as the best collection of pop hits since Mamma Mia!
Jukebox musicals normally get a rough ride from the critics, but Jersey Boys, built on the hits of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, emphatically deserves to thrive here as it has already done in New York.
The Four Seasons never matched the critical kudos of their contemporaries, the Beach Boys. But they came up with hit after hit for almost two decades, and their sound, dominated by the amazing falsetto of Frankie Valli, is instantly recognisable.
Once you have heard such songs as Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry and Can't Take My Eyes Off You, they are not easily forgotten.
In Mamma Mia!, the writer Catherine Johnson fashioned the hits of Abba into the soundtrack for a Greek-island romantic comedy that had almost nothing to do with the Swedish group beyond the fact that one of the characters once appeared in an Abba tribute band.
Here the writers Marshall Brickman (who co-wrote some of Woody Allen's finest films including Annie Hall and Manhattan) and Rick Elice take the more old-fashioned route of combining the music with the story of the group itself.
Such a traditional approach pays off handsomely, for the background of the Four Seasons is both vivid and interesting. They hailed from the wrong side of the tracks in New Jersey, and in their early years several of them combined music with small-time crime and spells in jail.
There were mob connections and the original leader of the band ended up deeply in hock to both loan-sharks and the IRS.
They were always a group who appealed primarily to a blue-collar audience - "the factory workers and the truck drivers, the guy flipping burgers, and the pretty girl with rings under her eyes in the diner" as the script evocatively puts it.
And the story is fascinatingly told through the eyes of each of the original band members, so that the audience gets a range of viewpoints.
Jersey Boys superbly captures the thrills and tensions of four testosterone-charged young men discovering fame and fortune after years of dogged failure.
It is excellent, too, on the pressures of life on the road, and the abiding strength of male friendships, particularly the enduring relationship between Valli and Bob Gaudio, the group's original keyboard player and prolific composer.
There are a host of excellent gags (I particularly liked Gaudio's delighted realisation when he finally loses his virginity that sex really is better when two people are involved), and Des McAnuff's strong, no-frills production, with its clever use of pop art imagery, is full of heart and humanity.
But it is the music most people will go for, and it is delivered with high fidelity, from cheesy novelty numbers to classic smash hits. Ryan Molloy superbly mimics Valli's soaring falsetto, as well as capturing the singer's pain and resilience.
Glenn Carter is excellent as the go-getting, recklessly spendthrift Tommy DeVito who finds himself edged out of his own band, and there is fine support from Stephen Ashfield as the honourable, educated Bob Gaudio and Philip Bulcock as the hilariously finicky bass player, Nick Massi.
Overpaid, oversexed and over here, it will, I suspect, be some time before London says Bye Bye Baby (Baby Goodbye) to the phenomenal Jersey Boys.
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