Sunday, December 20, 2015

Review: "Jersey Boys" - Theatre Royal, Glasgow, December 2015

"Oh what a night...."

Or to be more precise, oh what an afternoon - and it's not December 1963, but an afternoon in December 2015 when I finally realised one of my long-time theatre ambitions - to see the stage musical Jersey Boys.  This is the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, which for the past 10 years has been immortalised in this fabulous stage musical which began life on Broadway and has gone on to become an international hit and also spawned a movie adaptation. 

For me, the show started with a whole different kind of recognition.  Rewind to 2000, and to a song which soundtracked our spring break in Paris that year. "Ces soirées-là" by Yannick was an infectious mix of rap and pop, but that was a cover of a cover: "Cette année-là" by Claude Francois, which in turn was a French language cover of the Four Seasons' December 1963 (Oh What A Night) - hope this is not too confusing! And it's with this 2000 version of the song that the stage show opens.  I have a little chuckle to myself as I wonder if I'm the only person in the audience who knows all about"Ces soirées-là", as there seems to be some confused faces around me :))  

It's a very pleasant and surprising way to start one of the biggest musical theatre successes of the last 10 years, and used as a starting point by band member Tommy De Vito to make a point about the enduring popularity of the Four Seasons' songs before moving on to tell the story of the band's formation, fame and fortune, highs and lows. For those unfamiliar with the story of what I guess you would call one of the original "boybands", they began life in New Jersey, in a number of incarnations, with links to petty crime and the Mafia - and none other than a young Joe Pesci (himself to find fame playing gangsters on the big screen) would recommend a talented songwriter and producer, Bob Gaudio, whose songs would finally propel the band to stardom.  

But the band would eventually start to unravel, triggered by De Vito's spiralling debts and unpaid taxes which resulted in his departure from the band, closely followed by Nick Massi who ended up being one of the show's most popular characters.  Gaudio also wanted out, to focus on songwriting and producing, to leave Valli fronting a completely new line-up.  Yet despite the line-up changes the hits continued, and Valli's inevitable solo career followed.  Given the show's long running time there is no space for my all-time favourite Four Seasons song, "The Night", nor two of my other favourites, the lesser-known "Silver Star" and "Down The Hall".Valli's "Grease" theme tune is also left out of the equation.  But that just proves what a terrific catalogue of music which Valli and the Four Seasons produced, that there has to be omissions. 

The story is appropriately told in four separate acts - Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter (of course!). Each section is narrated by a different member of the group, all of whom had their own distinctive story to tell.  Lead vocalist Frankie Valli is of course the most famous of the group, going on to enjoy a successful solo career after the Four Seasons split, and he is still performing to this day; however the band would probably not have achieved so much without the inclusion of producer/songwriting genius Bob Gaudio, who went from writing the nonsensical hit song "Who Wears Short Shorts" to all those Four Seasons hit songs which have stood the test of time, and ensured a massive singalong from the audience.  "Can't Take My Eyes Off You", "Big Girls Don't Cry", "Sherry" went down a storm in the hall. 

Where the stage version of JB differs from the film version - which I didn't really appreciate on first viewing and felt it was too slow and plodding, and needed a second viewing to really get into it - is that there's a bit more sharpness and humour whilst maintaining the theme of the group's gritty origins and the subject matter which unravelled into the formation and demise of the band's original line-up: crime, gangsters and spiralling debts.  And on a theatrical note, the set is very simple but inventively and effectively changes lighting, backdrop and furnishing in the way that only theatre can. 

There are also lots of lovely "f" words thrown around so if you're easily offended by bad language this may not be the show for you - but the language is needed in the context of the band's background and origins.   And there are also lots of opportunities to sing along with the hits - even if they're not always sung in their entirety, which can be a tiny bit irritating although at a running time of 2 hours 40 minutes (including 20 minute interval) it could end up a very long show indeed if the songs were played in full!  However it was a joy to hear the elderly lady next to me sing along with every word of "Walk Like A Man".  It was a predominantly 'older' audience at this show - it was nice to feel like one of the young ones for a change!! - but of course you are never too old to enjoy great music! 

So yes, the accents sometimes veered off a little bit at times but there's no denying that the main cast members gelled and performed very well and are all very talented singers - Matt Corner in the lead role of Frankie Valli kept hitting the falsetto heights whilst the harmonising by his fellow actors was exceptional - and the result was a professional but very engaging experience. To call "Jersey Boys" a jukebox musical is a bit insulting; unlike other musicals of that genre, which are basically a parade of hit songs with a made-up storyline tacked on (well hello there Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You and numerous others....this is the actual true story of the band behind the music, and what a fascinating story it is.  The show ends with "Who Loves You", bringing the band's story up to date, and a reprise of "Oh What A Night" which had the audience on their feet. 

"Jersey Boys" is a brilliant show with great music, strong characters and an engaging storyline, and I'm delighted that I finally got the opportunity to see it live on stage.  I would certainly recommend that you go and see it.

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