Jersey Boys is an unusual musical. Rather than take the lazy route of the jukebox musicals and just churn out crowd pleasing copies of the hits the show has both higher aspirations and genuine style.
But then The Four Seasons, whose story is told in the musical, was an unusual group. Although dominated by the astonishing falsetto of Frankie Valli other members made vital contributions to its success; it was started by the guitarist who recruited the other members and the keyboardist was chief songwriter.
The structure of the musical, by writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, reflects the democratic nature of the group with each member telling their version of events. The title is apt as the humble origins of the group in working class New Jersey shaped their lifestyles and beliefs.
Small time crook and guitarist Tommy DeVito (Stephen Webb) gives young Frankie Castelluccio (Matt Corner) the chance to sing in his group. They achieve massive success with songs written by the diffident keyboard player Bob Gaudio (Sam Ferriday). Yet gambling debits incurred by DeVito force the group to cut a deal with mobsters from their old neighbourhood.
The writers create a slightly exaggerated world of wise guys and brassy broads in the style of Damon Runyon. The script is full of fascinating detail and gloriously witty. The name of the group is taken from a neon nightclub notice ‘It’s a sign!’ gasps Frankie. In a scene so weird it can only be true it is revealed that Oscar winner Joe Pesci once acted as gofer for the group.
The songs serve a narrative purpose, rather than act as showstoppers, with excerpts used to illustrate plot points. Director Des McAnuff adapts this approach to give the musical a slow boil and has great success in manipulating the audience. The use of excerpts makes Act One a long tease building towards the moment that the full songs are played. The superb full versions of "Sherry", "Big Girls Don’t Cry" and "Walk Like a Man" get an ecstatic reception and the cheerful mood never really dies down afterwards.
The perennial problem of dodgy sets that plague touring musicals is resolved with elegant simplicity – there are no sets. Klara Zieglerova constructs a stark metal structure in which the live band is easily seen and minimal props are added as needed. Pop art pictures reminiscent of the 1960s are projected onto the rear of the stage as scenes change.
Stephen Webb has the casual charisma of a natural leader and the pugilistic attitude of a born fighter. In any other production he would steal the show but tonight that honour belongs to Matt Corner. In the first Act Corner simply displays a stunning vocal range but in the second he cuts loose and turns Frankie into a cross between Michael Corleone and James Brown.
Corner draws out Frankie’s authority and integrity in negotiating for his friend’s life with mobsters. A nightclub performance sees Frankie spinning like a dervish and doing the splits. Typical of the restraint that director McAnuff displays throughout the show we see this only once but it makes an indelible impression.
Most striking of all is that Matt Corner is the ‘alternate’ Frankie Valli as the regular star, Tim Driesen, was unwell on the night I attended. This means whatever night you see this show you are pretty much guaranteed a hell of a good time.
Jersey Boys is at the Palace Theatre, Manchester until 4 October and then tours the UK, including Edinburgh, Stoke, Hull & Sunderland. Full tour dates are here.