Jersey Boys theatre review (Regent Theatre, Melbourne)

Yep, the show that played 11 years on Broadway, winning awards (Tonys, Grammys, Oliviers) and spawning multiple international productions, a so-so movie, and God knows how many tours and revivals is back in town.

I’m not usually a big fan of jukebox musicals. My mother very nearly stopped speaking to me when I told her what I really thought about Mamma Mia the movie: Shoot. Me. Now. But Jersey Boys isn’t a songbook in search of a storythe music belongs to the boys, it defines them.

And from the unexpected openinga French rap version of December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night) or, more properly, Ces soirées-là through to the triumphant Who Loves You, via Sherry, Rag Doll, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, Bye Bye Baby and the soulful Can’t Take My Eyes off You, this is one fabulously entertaining show.

Embarrassingly, I’d never even considered why a musical about The Four Seasons (AKA The Variety Trio, AKA The Variatones, AKA The Four Lovers etc etc) was named Jersey Boys. Duh! Noo Joysey is everywhere; the show has Mob credentials.

The score (composer Bob Gaudio, lyricist Bob Crewe) is a given, but you know how the band in a musical often sounds a bit, um, lacking? These musicians are fantastic (Luke Hunter is the musical director)the punchy brass just warms right through you. The writing is crisp and witty, using the differing perspectives of the original Four Seasons to provide a kind of composite view of what happened.  It’s a neat touch, allowing for contrastingeven contradictoryaccounts of the same events, emphasising the vagaries of memory, the inflations of ego.

I’m as close as I’ll ever get (or would want to get really) to a Vegas show.

The book is by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice who’ve previously collaborated on The Addams Family musical. As you’d expect from someone who co-wrote Sleeper and Annie Hall (and One For The Boysbut let’s not go there…), the vein of humour, the quirkiness that punctuates this very fast, very funny show is obvious. But I wonder if it isn’t Brickman’s years as head writer on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and The Dick Cavett Show that provide the more defining contribution here, in terms of style at least, and you can easily imagine Elice’s (Peter and the Starcatcher) credentials running advertising campaigns and developing theatre shows with husband, Roger Rees feeding into that mix.

Because there’s a sketch quality to much of the material that resists indulgence and cuts to the chase, summing up issues or themes rather than simply detailing events, the writers can get through a heck of a lot of materialthe story spans over 40 yearswithout us feeling either overwhelmed or short changed.

The early days of the boys, doors shutting repeatedly in their faces (‘I thought you were black, you sound black!’), allow the writers to acknowledge the debt owed to black artists by the white mainstream (something of the understatement there); though, even when fame strikes, the boys from Joysey are never exactly mainstream. The number of trips to the big house for minor (and not so minor) infractions, for example, is pretty striking! But it’s the addition of Valli, with his vibrant high notes, that really starts to shift the group to the sound that will come to define the The Four Seasons.

And this is Valli’s story more than anyone else’s. Which, for the only constant in the line-up (Gaudio stayed on as writer and producer, but over 40 musicians have performed as The Four Seasons), the last Jersey boy standing as it were, seems fitting.

We meet a few other people who ‘were there’: eager teenager Joe Pesciyes that Joe Pesci (Joshua Mulheran), who introduced Gaudio to the group; Gyp DeCarlo (Enrico Mammarella), head of the Genevese ‘family’ and friend to the band…

There are turns from the fabulous Cristina D’Agostino as Frankie’s first wife, Mary Delgado, and from an outrageously, gorgeously camp (those were the days!) Glenn Hill as Bob Crewe, the producer who hired the boys as an in-house band for his own company, then secured a deal for them with Vee-jay Records. They were the first non-black group to be signed by that company.

The acting throughout is excellent, and the Jersey Boys themselves: Frankie Valli (Ryan Gonzalez), Tommy DeVito (Cameron MacDonald), Bob Gaudio (Thomas McGuane) and Nick Massi (Glaston Toft)knit together superbly and boy can they sing!

Drawing on the synchronised movements employed by bands and groups of the 40s, 50s and even 60s, the choreography (Sergio Trujillo) is sharp, really sharp. The style, whether measured and deliberate or snappy, belongs to the era, and it’s the thread that runs through the piece, pulling the story and staging (by director Des McAnuff) together.

The costumes are truly schmick (Jess Goldstein). The set (Klara Zieglerova) is an almost-standard urban-theatrical scaffolding affair, but it serves this piece particular well. In evoking the tenements and fire escapes of the Noo Joysey skyline, it’s brilliant; but it’s equally effective as various clubs (add a neon sign), a prison, band-rigs and, lit with a luscious sunset (lighting by Howell Binkley), the seemingly endless Nevada desert of Casino land.

I’m as close as I’ll ever get (or would want to get really) to a Vegas show.

The scrim at the rear of the set is saturated with colour, the aforementioned sunsets, silhouettes. Even the projections (Michael Clark)cartoon commentary and some archival materialwork; though the colour in the cartoons is too clean for a comic, Lichtenstein rather than something you once bought at a newsstand, I admit I’d have preferred something a bit more grubby (that is my sole criticism…).

The first half of the showdetailing the band’s search for a sound (and a name!), hinting at the financial mismanagement and gambling on DeVito’s part that will see them face bankruptcy and owe debts to loan sharks (from which Gyp DeCarlo extracts them without either gunshot or bloodshed) and the tax office, is charming, diverting, fascinating. But the second half’s a knock-out.

Maybe it’s the ‘Italianness’ of it all, or the feeling that this show has everything: betrayal (romantic, business, professional, financial), changing allegiances, stretches in prison, an undercurrent of mafia darkness, a quick genuflect to the Catholic church, fame, passion, drugs, divorce, death andfor the band at leastrebirth. There are over 30 songs (!) but Valli’s storyhis talent, his integrity in insisting that DeVito’s debts will be honoured, his pain at his daughter’s deathis on an epic scale. It’s heroic: a kind of opera.

My Aunt Karina adores Jersey Boys, she’s a six-timer (but who’s counting!), and for her, this seemed the best version yet. But she kept saying the show was slick and I hate that word. For me it means superficial, shallow, and this ain’t that. We agreed to polished, crisp, moving: it’s a really great show.

And weirdlythis has never happened beforeI come away thinking I’d like to learn to dance.

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