Packing the story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons into a two-hour stage show was always going to be a mammoth undertaking; they’re one of the biggest-selling acts of all time and one of the few American groups to survive the British invasion of the mid-1960s. Telling the story of such a culturally significant landmark of popular music, with all its constitutive hit singles, lives or dies on the strength of the musical delivery – and in that department, Jersey Boys does not disappoint.
The vocal performances of all four of our protagonists (Michael Watson as Frankie Valli, Simon Bailey as Tommy DeVito, Declan Egan as Bob Gaudio and Lewis Griffiths as Nick Massi) were outstanding, but the take-home from the evening was Watson’s impeccable portrayal of Frankie Valli. In the words of Bob Gaudio himself, “[Valli’s] falsetto is as strong as his full voice – that’s unusual, and to be able to do those jumps as easily as he can takes a lot.” A lot indeed. I was stunned by Watson’s strength in the upper register. Moving between his chest, head and falsetto voices was imperceptible. He also nailed Valli’s archetypal tone, buttery in the mid-range, clean and distinct in the upper-register, oboe-like in its clarity. Doing that once is an achievement, doing it eight times a week is astonishing. Bravo.
This production of the Tony award-winning show has trodden the boards at the New Theatre before, and it’s all the better for it. The pacing is nothing short of frenetic. All aspects of the lighting, staging, set and costume changes were pulled off with military precision. The story is told in four sections as each Jersey Boy narrates a section of their career. The scenes unfold like little snapshots – from humble beginnings to international fame. We go from a courthouse, to a recording studio, to a television set. Hurried along, but never rushed; as slick as a Brylcreem quiff.
I have but two gripes – firstly with the pacing. There are, of course, very good reasons why sometimes we only get passing glances at some stages. To get this story on stage must have been a fairly tortuous exercise in whittling, refining and cutting. They do very well to get most of the classics into two hours, but they could obviously have gone on for three times as long and still not run out of tunes. I do understand all that, but at some points I was left hoping they’d paused for only a minute longer to embellish some of the narratively important moments.
Tommy DeVito’s spiralling debt problems spiral very quickly indeed. Frankie’s relationship with Mary Delgado goes from first meeting to marital troubles in a flash. When he learns of his daughter Francine’s death, the accompanying line, ‘and then someone comes along with a needle’ is all we get to explain its cause, before he launches into another, undeniably exquisite, rendition. Some of the strongest and funniest moments come when there are breaks in the pace; when the actors are allowed to act and the story can breathe. When they sing together for the first time, joining one after the other filling out that characteristic four-part harmony, I felt the force of the story and a little spine-shiver. I only wish we’d had more such instances.
The other gripe I have is something conspicuous by its absence – women. Now I know this was the 60s – even more of a man’s world than now – and I know I was watching the Jersey Boys, but Jersey Boys aren’t born without Jersey Women, and success, of any kind, is not a mono-gendered thing. We hear from Mary Delgado, briefly from Francine and we get a performance from The Angels with whom the boys shared a tour – but these apart, there are no other named female speaking parts. One scene, where Gaudio is ushered upstairs for his first copulative experience was a little bit basic; a bit like Grease without Betty Rizzo.
Gripes aside, it ended with a standing ovation and I was on my feet before I could say ‘oh what a night’. The success of the show is in the authenticity of its musical offering and the talent that delivers it. Where so many shows fail at telling a compelling story through music (We Will Rock You, Son of a Preacher Man), Jersey Boys smashes it out the park. Fair warning though – prepare to have Can’t Take My Eyes Off You bouncing around your head for weeks.