Slick, exuberant and happily devoid of smaltz, Jersey Boys is just what Sydney needs to be entertained over summer. Having won Tony, Olivier and Helpmann awards for best musical production and a Grammy for best recording of a musical, Jersey Boys has finally arrived in Sydney with high expectations. Judging by the whooping standing ovation on opening night, the expectations have been well and truly met.
Even if you have never heard the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the tight, complex harmonies of their Jersey sound will instantly hook you. Delivering song after brilliant song it works, in parts, like a concert but without any of the rehashed, nostalgic tribute band about it. The show has been cast with pitch perfect singers. Decked out with sharp suits and snazzy moves, and skilfully choreographed by Sergio Trujillo, the four leads (Bobby Fox, Stephen Mahy, Scott Johnson and Glaston Toft) are all excellent, with voices that blend beautifully.
Bobby Fox, as the pocket sized Frankie Valli, masters Valli’s famous range from his trademark falsetto to his rich chest voice. His vocal transitions are technically very impressive and yet seemingly effortless.
This pop group biographical musical is so much better than most of its genre largely due to its, brisk, funny and clever book, written by Marshall Brickman, a prolific writer who co-wrote Annie Hall and Manhattan with Woody Allen and Rick Elice. The snappily written scenes shoot along, each moment directed (by Des McAnuff) as tightly as choreography, with the songs often linking thematically with the action.
The tone is pure Jersey: brassy, smart and peppered with wise-guy one liners, like a mix between The Sopranos and Guys and Dolls. When Frankie meets his first wife, brilliantly played by Lisa Adam, she tells him not to change his name from Castelluccio to Vally with a y because “y is a bullshit letter…it doesn’t know if it is a vowel or a consonant.”
Back in the 1960s career options in Jersey were limited and there were three ways to get out: “you join the army, get Mobbed up or become a star”. Jersey Boys tracks the trajectory of four poor Italian boys, two already headed for a life of petty crime. Due to a felicitous meeting of Tommy DeVito, a guy with a driving ambition, Frankie Valli, with a “voice like an angel” and the genius song writer, Bob Gaudio, the boys manage to escape Jersey and dominate the charts, rivalling The Beatles in popularity. They produce a slew of hits: Walk Like a Man, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Sherry, Can’t Take My Eyes off of You, My Eyes Adored You to name a few. Between 1962 and 1965 they chart 11 number one hits in the US.
One of the themes of the show is that you can take the boys out of Jersey, but you can’t take Jersey out of the boys. For Valli, that means unwavering loyalty to friends and honour. Deals made on a handshake – a Jersey contract – are kept for life. On the other hand for DeVito, it means he can’t shake off his penchant for petty crime and gambling.
Despite their success, it is not all plain sailing for the boys, who struggle with both personal tragedy and professional setbacks. Thanks to the strength of the script, the characters in this musical are unusually well fleshed out, giving credibility to the setbacks and the ultimate comeback.
The three band members each narrate parts of the story, inevitably giving their own, individual spin to both the triumphs and difficulties in the band’s career. Baritone Scott Johnson does a wonderful job as destructive tough guy and reckless gambler, Tommy DeVito who, having been the early driving force, brings the group head to head with the Mob and nearly ruins them. Stephen Mahy plays songwriter Bob Gaudio with shrewd intelligence and Glaston Toft’s, neat freak, Nick Massi (the Ringo of the group) offers comic relief. His outburst over having to share motel rooms with the slovenly DeVito for ten years is particularly funny. Even though he never gets a chance to narrate his version of their career, Bobby Fox’s portrayal of Valli is terrific. It is ultimately Valli’s show and Fox does a great job of portraying him from a guileless 15-year-old kid to an older, wiser and sadder man.
Jersey Boys has played for long seasons everywhere it has been produced and I expect the Sydney season will be no different. It is a highly accessible, enjoyable show that is underpinned by the talents of the strong creative team and the local cast.
The Story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons
Venue: The Theatre Royal, 108 King Street, Sydney
Dates: from 3 September, 2010
Bookings: ticketmaster.com.au or 1300 723 038