The good kind of Jersey [by James Wenley]
As I take my seat in the Civic, the Jersey Boy stage looks surprisingly non-descript. It’s a grey and drab industrial looking set, complete with walkways and chain mesh. A pretty ordinary set for an international musical, but then, the origins of the real Jersey blue collar Four Season members were rather ordinary too. Is this to be the stage for the multi-award winning Broadway Smash that has finally wound its way to little young Auckland?
As soon as local boy Vince Harder appears as a modern day French rapper, singing Ces Soirees-La (a hit in France in 2000, we know it better as Oh what a night…), the stage transforms as only mega-budget musicals do, lighting up in brilliant colour and moving all over the place. It’s a spectacle rich experience – microphone stands rise up from the floor, and attractive pop-art graphics on appear screens to accompany the storytelling, but all that is blown away by the blended and distinctive sound of the show’s four leads as The Four Seasons, giving us their all with hit after hit. The most effective moments of the show are the sheer musicality of the foursome as they come right to the edge of the stage, concert style, and perform the tunes. They don’t make songs like these anymore – simple hooks, but packed with emotion, all topped with Frankie Valli’s remarkable falsetto. Or rather, make that Dion Billios’ remarkable falsetto…
If I seem over the top in my praise then I make no apologies, if nothing else Jersey Boys is a sensationally fun night out. Its carried along by the fascinating and previously little known behind-the-scenes story of the band and Valli’s rise and fall, which manages to have the winning combination of being both specific – the Jersey origins, mob connections, and the singular coming together (and breaking apart) of the four talents, and a universal and inspiring rags to riches show-biz dream story.
I first saw Jersey Boys in Melbourne in 2009, a few months after the Australian Production had opened (the show made its Broadway debut in 2005 where it is still running – a film is in the works too!). I was across the ditch mainly to take in the much-anticipated Wicked, but decided to head to Boys too, and it was that show that I fell most in love with. Knowing almost next to nothing going in, not even who Franki Valli was (much to my shame), I was moved by the story and captured by the music. I was opened up to an era of music I previously had little connection too – for those that grew up with the songs no doubt the show is a warm nostalgia trip (In 40 years will there be a Justin Bieber retro musical? The mind boggles!), but for me it was an exciting discovery. I bought the soundtrack immediately after the performance, and it’s proved a welcome pick me up whenever I’ve felt down. That production moved to Sydney in 2010, and is now travelling round the rest of Australasia, starting here.
The cast have been refreshed, but this line up equals if not excels my memories of the original Australian performers. Glaston Toft as the stoic and bass-voiced Nick Massi, a favourite of mine from the Melbourne season, has stayed with the show and adds much class to the proceedings. Anthony Harkin is hard-nosed Tommy Devito, who provided the band’s big push in the early years before getting into massive debt, and Harkin gets us firmly on side despite his faults. As songwriting genius Bob Gaudio, Declan Egan makes an impressive professional debut. And Dion Bilios, in the notoriously difficult role of Frankie Valli, soars to the highest registers. The first time all four sing and play together in Cry for Me is an early high point of the show. The four pull off playing their characters, without the help of makeup, over four decades. The hard-working company play an endless variety of roles (and go through an endless amount of costume changes). The cast are often seen taking up instruments and play live, along with the orchestra who make many cameos onstage.
As a Jukebox musical, a format often criticised for shoehorning songs into the narrative, Jersey Boys largely overcomes the forms’ limitations by using the band’s own true story – the song’s springing from and relating to the events that inspired them. The 1975 hit December 1963 (Oh, what a night )is given to Bob Gaudio, marking a significant moment in the young man’s life “You know I didn’t even know her name / But I was never gonna be the same”, with a prostitute provided by the record label. The early section of the show moves with relentless energy, the songs – Sillhouttes, You’re the Apple of my eye, I can’t give you anything but love, among others, creating a montage effect and impression of the era’s colour and taste.
We don’t hit The Four Season’s hits till much later in Act One: finally, after going through a million name and line-up changes, Frankie, Tommy, Bob and Nick had come together, but were stuck in their recording contract providing back-up vocals and the story of how they got their first hit (written in fifteen minutes!) on the airwaves is a good one. In a real show stopper, the boys perform their first three number one hits one after the other – Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry and Walk Like a Man. These, and others like Dawn (Go Away) and Beggin are big enough songs to really milk, but director Des McAnuff keeps it moving and leaving you wanting more – there are a lot more hits to get through! Similarly, the story of how Can’t take my eyes off of you became a massive solo hit for Valli is a fascinating drama, the gatekeepers unsure what to do with the unusual track , and when its finally performed by Bilios – complete with horn section – it’s a crowd pleasing moment.
While the music is easily the best part of the show, what makes it work is the clever script that brings the audience into the lives of the four boys from Jersey. Based on the idea that “You ask four guys how it happened, you get four different versions” each section, divided by the four seasons, is narrated by a different band member, offering their own spin of how it happened. Spring is characterised by Tommy’s charisma and bravado, repeated brushes with the law and the struggles of a band trying to make it. Bob takes us through Summer and the band’s spectacular rise, little-spoken Nick brings a dose of hard reality to the literal Fall in Act Two as the band break apart, and Winter takes us through Frankie’s solo career and personal high and low points. It’s a warts and all account, not of all of it flattering, but held together by an authenticity and character’s you want to root for.
Second time round for me, and with a more critical eye, there are a few off-notes. The show’s forward propulsion relies too heavily on the hit factory over narrative, and at times it feels like you are only getting a surface wash over deeper events. The darker second act doesn’t match the thrills of the first.
A reunion for band as they are inducted into the Rock N Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 makes for an emotionally satisfying conclusion, each member getting to have their final say before each being clapped off by the audience. The company returns to stage for the curtain call, and the audience linger to clap on the show’s orchestra as they get to make their own deserved curtain call.
Jersey Boys ticks all the boxes: a killer real life story, oodles of talent, and hit songs guaranteed to make a welcome home in your head for weeks to come (until the next trip to the show – it’s here till June!)
Jersey Boys is presented by Dodger Theatricals and plays at The Civic until 17 June. Details see Jersey Boys NZ.
Check out Sharu’s preview with Jersey Boys star Dion Bilios.