Jersey Boys

Jersey BoysLeft – Glaston Toft, Ryan Gonzalez, Thomas McGuane and Cameron MacDonald. Cover – Thomas McGuane, Luigi Lucente, Glaston Toft, Ryan Gonzalez, Cameron MacDonald and Enrico Mammarella. Photos – Jeff Busby

A show like Jersey Boys, already a smash for over a decade and not even its first Sydney run, should come with something of a disclaimer for the uninitiated: this is a seriously great show. For post-Boomer audiences that perhaps aren’t as aware of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons due to their far lesser cult of personal celebrity than contemporaries such as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones, they may very well be shocked to realise just how many iconic hits the band actually released.

Oh, What a Night, Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, Can’t Take my Eyes Off Of You, Working My Way Back to You, Bye, Bye, Baby and others were all monster hits which will be instantly familiar to all but the most stridently niche or neophyte music lovers. And for those of us who grew up hearing these “oldies” without ever focusing on who actually sang them, it’s a little astonishing to think that these were all from the same group. That fact alone makes it all the more perplexing that they did not retain a greater degree of intergenerationally persistent reputation as deservedly famous musicians, despite the enduring fame of the songs themselves.

As the show itself acknowledges, The Four Seasons were not “personalities” nor counterculture icons, but rather a homegrown alternative to the British Invasion of popular music, and were beloved by the mainstream working class American demographic from which they themselves came. Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of this musical is that much of the biographical detail which informs it was not widely known prior to the show itself, due to this very lack of contemporary media attention to the Four Seasons’ members as individual celebrities. Another factor perhaps was that the band did not have a stable core membership throughout its existence, with some of their most memorable hits even being released after three of the four founding members left the group. The act was effectively rebranded as “Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons”, elevating the original lead singer and hiring a succession of new quartets as essentially backing musicians, which continues to tour in this form to the present day.

With some expected simplifications of these historical details for the sake of concision, the story of the band’s formation, rise to success, tribulations and reconfiguration form the core of this show, and is one of its great strengths. Unlike other jukebox musicals which graft the discography of major bands onto an original fictitious narrative, part of Jersey Boys’ success lies in its genuinely captivating real-life story that fits in with the popular documentary-style “band biopic” genre. The integration of these great hits with where they fit into the history of the musical group’s development as a successful act gives the songs more weight and context, with the ripple of recognition going through the crowd as each of their major releases arrives in the story, adding a special frisson to the experience.

Despite covering the aforementioned reformation of the group with newer members, the musical is nevertheless chiefly focused on the group’s inception and breakthrough, and thus the four founders are its primary characters. Making a cute pun from the band’s name, the show is structured into four “seasons” from spring to winter, each narrated by one of the original members, with some degree of overlap and contradicting personal perspectives. This nod to the idea of subjective memory and unreliable narrators is a welcome one, as much of the previously little known material used in the writing of the musical was taken from personal interviews with the three surviving founders. Indeed, the inception of the whole project came from original member Bob Gaudio himself, who co-wrote and owns most of the Four Seasons’ songs, and hired Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice to write Jersey Boys for the stage.

Proceeding through this succession of “seasons” and the band’s waxing and waning fortunes, we are taken on quite a ride, with their streetwise backgrounds in rough-and-tumble New Jersey, stints in prison and even mafia associations. Their initial formation comes about through unlikely personal connections, including a fateful introduction courtesy of a young neighbourhood punk who just so happened to be Joe Pesci. Yes, that Joe Pesci.

The band struggles to find a “sound”, an identity, even a name that will stick, cannot get decent gigs or recording contracts, and cover all the usual beats of a road-to-success story, but with a strong sense of time and place suffused through it. The material of their eventually quite dramatic internecine disputes is strengthened by its portrayal of the four bandmates as strong distinct personalities, with sharply delineated interpersonal relationships.

With great period-appropriate, largely diegetic choreography and orchestration, this is an extremely lively, energetic show that veritably romps through its runtime, yet one cannot underplay the importance of casting in making this specific production such a barnstorming experience. With great performances in even the smaller roles such as from Rutene Spooner and Glenn Hill, as well as Cristina D’Agostino and Mia Dabkowski-Chandler as the long-suffering women in Frankie Valli’s life, it is undeniably the titular four leads who are the absolute driving engine of the performance.

Glaston Toft imparts a stealthy sense of humour as Nick Massi, the relatively laconic and self-described “Ringo” of the group. It is a testament to Toft’s stage presence and vocal strength that he makes what is ostensibly the least narratively impactful and certainly the least ostentatiously showy role seem no lesser than the rest of the quartet. He brings great moments of unexpected hilarity and pathos to this comparative straight-man in a group of big personalities, contributing necessary ballast.

Thomas McGuane similarly brings something understated and nuanced to the part of Bob Gaudio, the outwardly quieter and youngest member of the band, yet a forceful persona to be reckoned with in his own way as the chief songwriter. A “boy genius” and previous one-hit-wonder, Gaudio consistently stands his ground on creative decisions and has the most foresight for the group’s future, even to a somewhat Machiavellian degree. He forms his closest relationship and business partnership with lead singer Valli, upon recognising him as the band’s most indispensible assest… after himself, of course. McGuane infuses Gaudio with a wry self-confidence, representing the least volatile and undoubtedly smartest member of the Four Seasons with aplomb, especially in his faintly smug yet endearing direct addresses to the audience when narrating.

Cameron MacDonald as Tommy DeVito is arguably the show’s most vital and magnetic personality, a consummate hustler, con-artist, self-promoter and blame-dodger, an ultimately rather self-destructive character who was nevertheless the driving catalyst for the group’s formation. Doggedly chasing the dream of success, he was the band’s creator, manager, and very much sought to assert himself as their boss until his astronomical gambling debts to the mob precipitated an insurrection by Valli and Gaudio, the true creative force most committed to the enterprise’s ongoing success.

More than any of these “Jersey Boys”, DeVito comes across like a character straight out of a great mafia film, and not just because of his actual mob connections. He is a wonderful portrait of the kind of scrappily macho, compulsively self-deluding chancer who will never accept blame or understand how to not screw things up for himself and all those around him, and MacDonald plays this role to perfection. Reminiscent of a young David Caruso by way of The Sopranos, he strikes an irresistible figure with a perpetual smirk and wild glint in his eye that imparts the kind of larrikin bad-boy charm that you love to hate, or possibly feel like you hate to love, but can’t help ruefully loving all the same.

To paraphrase another famous Italian, Frankie Valli was “first amongst equals” in The Four Seasons, becoming the eventual undisputed frontman-come-star of the band. We witness his transition from a wet behind the ears kid with a prodigious vocal ability, essentially talent-scouted and plucked from neighborhood obscurity by the older DeVito and then written for by the later inclusion of the even younger Gaudio – two men who each in their own ways greedily knew a meal ticket when they saw one. Ryan Gonzalez may have a less flashy part than the almost caricatured one afforded to MacDonald, but he also shoulders most of the dramatic weight of the production, as Valli is the only member of the quartet into whose tumultuous personal story we significantly delve, outside of life on the road.

He does not disappoint either, bringing a much-needed sensitivity to the potentially unsympathetic figure of a largely absentee father with failed relationships and some degree of culpability for the personal tragedies which ensue. One also cannot undersell the considerable musical requirements of a performer to actually approximate the real Frankie Valli’s vocal range, including making those famous falsetto refrains sound terrific as opposed to ear-bleedingly screechy. That’s to say nothing of also having the onstage charisma and sweet dance moves that all have to come together in one performative package. Gonzalez deserves every bit of the spontaneous applause his first entrance received on opening night.

For anyone who ever wondered why a jukebox musical about a “boy band” from the 1960s they don’t know much about has achieved such success beyond the expected Boomer demographic, Jersey Boys will hopefully come as something of a revelation. For those already in the know, this returning production is everything you could hope for and more – an absolute corker of a musical.

Dodger Theatricals, Rodney Rigby and TEG-Dainty present
Jersey Boys
by Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice, Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe

Director Des McAnuff

Venue: Capitol Theatre | 13 Campbell Street, Haymarket NSW
Dates: from 29 August 2018
Tickets: from $69.90
Bookings: jerseyboys.com.au

 

 

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