Jersey Boys at the Trafalgar Theatre – review
The hit musical returns – but is it "beggin'" to be seen?
It's hard to imagine a time when sitting through this most engaging of biographical musicals wouldn't be a complete pleasure, apart perhaps from the overly earnest film version. This compact new West End remounting of Des McAnuff's dynamic, clean-cut staging cements the show's reputation as one of the most immaculately crafted and flat-out enjoyable jukebox tuners.
The tale of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' journey from a quartet of down-home Italian American lads singing doo-wop close harmonies under a streetlight in 1950s New Jersey, to global superstars by way of a path littered with failed relationships, failings out, incarcerations, addiction and even shady Mob dealings, might be considered far fetched if it weren't actually true. Marshall Brickman and Rick Ellice's book ups the ante further by not presenting it as a linear story but by broadly splitting it into four sections, each named for a different season, the changes beamed up in Pop Art cartoons on the screens of Klara Zieglerova's industrial looking set. Thus an already spicy story gains further interest by being told from a quartet of different viewpoints. If not exactly hard-hitting, it certainly doesn't shy away from the less wholesome aspects of the band's rise to fame.
The songs will be the main attraction for most people though and they still absolutely rock and roll, a tasty, beaty, ear-wormy selection of bangers and belters from the golden age of American popular music. If it's sometimes frustrating that we only get snatches of well known, beloved tunes rather than all the verses and choruses, there are a heck of a lot to get though in the space of a two and a half hour show. They're used inventively too, not just presented front and centre: for example, the spine-tingling way the distinctive piano part of the Four Season's first breakout hit "Sherry" runs through and under the dialogue in the preceding scenes as underscoring ensures that when we get the full number it pops far more excitingly than if it was just launched into cold.
In a sensational theatrical debut, Ben Joyce unerringly replicates Frankie Valli's trademark falsetto and brings a loveable warmth and also an understated darkness. He even manages to age convincingly, and, more than others who have previously played the role, conveys the sense of a once-in-a-generation raw talent tethered to a bundle of unrestrained, slightly wayward energy.
Adam Bailey is very likeable as Bob Gaudio, making sensible anything but boring in the songwriting talent of the group. Benjamin Yates invests bad boy Tommy DeVito with an intriguing simmering rage and a wired comic energy, and Karl James Wilson creates something funny and distinctive out of Nick Massi's unhistrionic bluntness. The concluding speeches for each band member filling us in on what has happened since are mini masterpieces of character development and ingeniously subtle emotional manipulation, and they are superbly performed here.
Ben Irish is bracingly amusing as Bob Crewe, the camp and canny manager who gives the band their first big break, while Mark Isherwood excels as a dangerous Mafia boss brought to lachrymose messiness by Frankie's singing. The tough-talking New Jersey accent can be a tricky one for British actors to master but the present company manage it pretty well for the most part. In an undeniably, and perhaps inevitably, male oriented show, Helen Ternent, Koko Basigara and Melanie Bright are all terrific and provide invaluable contributions as the women who impacted indelibly on Valli's life. Ternent in particular makes a haunting impression as his doomed daughter, but they are all so versatile that it's easy to overlook that there's only three of them.
Sergio Trujillo's choreography is taut and stylish, and Howard Binkley's exceptional lighting bathes everything in a bright, tough sheen. Great music doesn't age, it matures, and the same goes for this vivid, satisfyingly hard edged musical, staged with true all-American flair and polish. It's so lovely to have it back, and what a glorious way to open a beautifully refurbished venue. Not hard to see why this ran over 11 years on Broadway then immediately transferred to a smaller Off-Broadway house, "Oh What A Night" indeed.