Declan Egan, Lewis Griffiths, Simon Bailey and Michael Watson arrive in style at the Theatre Royal – photo © The Eye Snapper
Pop group histories turned into fast paced musical shows are increasingly common in theatre today, and are a relatively safe seat-filler for touring circuit venues like our own Norwich Theatre Royal. The challenge for the producers is to cram in the often complex detail of a band’s evolution while presenting as many as possible of the band’s popular tunes sung live.
Jersey Boys is a textbook example of how to strike the right balance between songs and story, although this means that on occasions difficult and protracted human events such as a family breakup are reduced to just a poignant sentence or two, with the relevant songs left to tell a fuller story.
Jersey Boys is the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons who have enjoyed consistent success from 1960 onwards, and are still performing now, with Valli now a sprightly 84 year old. The title refers to their common origin in New Jersey, from Italian-American families with a strong common bond often found in that community. In their young days there was much mischief and several of the band served prison terms including Tommy DeVito who also managed to rack up crippling debts through gambling as the band became more successful. The code of honour and loyalty to each other sees the band members through challenges which destroy many successful pop groups and this production takes those values very seriously, sometimes presenting a rather dour and grim tale.
The complex set echoes the hard industrial landscape of their home area and there is also a breathtakingly rapid shuffling of on-stage furniture and backdrops to denote rapidly changing locations. The drummer is visible on stage for much of the show, with other musicians in the wings and the cast themselves singing the hits.
Michael Watson gives a competent and charismatic lead as Frankie Valli, successfully accomplishing the star’s quite astonishingly high vocal range. He is joined by Simon Bailey as Tommy DeVito, creator of the band and Lewis Griffiths as the long suffering bass singer and vocal arranger Nick Massi. The fourth key role of Bob Gaudio who wrote so much of the Four Seasons’ memorable tunes is normally played by Declan Egan (seen in the photo above) but was played on stage tonight by a very relaxed and confident Stephen O’Riain.
Each of the four leads takes a turn as narrator, showing the reality that now each of the original members have a slightly different take on how their history happened. It is undoubtedly another accurate reflection of their background culture that this is a very male show, with the only three female cast members reduced to occasional sightings as wives, girlfriends, courtesans or fan-girls. A parallel version of this story from the women’s point of view – now that would be a story!
What binds the show together and makes it memorable for the audience is the music. The songs sung by Frankie Valli and often written by Bob Gaudio are part of the familiar backdrop to our lives, from hits such as ‘Sherry’ and ‘My Eyes Adored You’ to songs sometimes more familiar from other artists, such as ‘Bye Bye Baby’ (Bay City Rollers) and ‘Cant Take My Eyes Off Of You’ (Andy Williams).
If you like the music and values of the 50s and 60s you will love this musical. The cast and crew go to great lengths to present the highest possible quality in everything they do. This became clear to me even at the photo-shoot for the band outside the theatre where they posed with a rather splendid pink Cadillac and spoke to me of the ‘Wow factor’ of the staging of the hit songs. They also all spoke about their enthusiasm to explore the City of Norwich and the area around in their few hours of free time in Norfolk. Australian-born Declan was keen to see Blakeney Point on the North Norfolk coast – perhaps this was the reason his understudy was on stage later!
Jersey Boys gives us a very human set of stories about the rewards and pitfalls of pop group life presented in a very accessible manner in a show crammed with top class singing of familiar songs. This show has been on one stage or another since 2005, and I think we will still be seeing it for many years to come.
© Julian Swainson 2018
Jersey Boys, Tuesday 5 to Saturday 16 June, 2018. Tickets £8-£50. Discounts for Friends, Over-60s, Under-18s and Groups. Audio-described performance on Thursday 7 June at 2.30pm. Captioned performance on Thursday June 14 at 2.30pm. To book, log onto www.theatreroyalnorwich.co.uk or call the box office on 01603 630000.