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God of Carnage

Jersey Boys

By • West End
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“We put New Jersey on the map” does not carry quite the same rallying-cry punch on Old Compton Street as it does in Manhattan, but this irresistible Broadway import – it opened there in November 2005 – carries a world of New York Italian mob culture on its tuxedoed shoulders, the world that spawned Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi and The Sopranos.

Jersey Boys, with a deft and engaging book by sometime Woody Allen co-writer Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, is more than just another jukebox musical. It uses the songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, mostly written by Bob Gaudio (music) and Bob Crewe (lyrics), to both shape the outer success story and illuminate the inner tensions.

Thus the breakthrough hit, “Sherry”, arrives as a climactic concert number, the boys in red jackets doo-wapping like crazy and executing those rhythmically tight jive moves – spring-coiled choreography by Sergio Trujillo – that simultaneously launch and corset the song; and Frankie (Ryan Molloy) ruminates on personal tragedy in the plangent heartbreak of “Bye Bye Baby”, “My Eyes Adored You” and the lyric beauty of “Fallen Angel”.

This is one step beyond the slick mix-and-match of song and situation in Mamma Mia!. The Four Seasons songs carry stories of love and yearning that suit this style of theatre to perfection, and the awesome efficiency of Des McAnuff’s production – cast with British performers – can absorb the bumpiness of life on the road and in the recording studio while Klara Zieglerova’s beautiful scenic design of pop art cartoons and fast-moving platforms bring out the expressive, declamatory nature of the material.

Frankie Valli himself, a neat little Al Pacino figure, was in the first night stalls to cheer on his own show: blue collar group is formed, has a few hits, and a few run-ins with the Mafia, splits up, and is later inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame. Within that barebones format, we learn a lot about what went right and wrong, and how much of the group’s impetus came from having to pay off the gambling debts of Tommy DeVito (Glenn Carter).

Another original member, Nick Massi (Philip Bulcock) eventually retires while Gaudio (played with sly, insinuating coolness and aplomb by Stephen Ashfield) steps down to concentrate on writing and protecting royalties and copyrights. DeVito’s replacement, buffs will appreciate, is played by a real dead ringer for Joe Long, while general fans can rest easy that the dodgy disco-dancing phase of the mid-1970s is thankfully ignored.

The dynamics in the quartet form the energy for the songs, which are sheer joy from start to finish. Ryan Molloy conveys brilliantly that furtive little bad boy side of Valli; and his voice is a miracle of throbbing, tearful falsetto, some weird manifestation that added pop hysteria to Johnny Mathis and prefigured both the Beach Boys and the Bee Gees.

With great backing musicians and good sound arrangements, the second act peaks with the gorgeous staging of that imperishable classic “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, brass players marching on in the middle eight while Frankie soars to ecstatic fulfilment, and an eerily smoke-filled reunion concert with the boys rising like waxen effigies to discharge “Rag Doll”.

- Michael Coveney


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