Disclaimers posted around the Edinburgh Playhouse for the UK tour of Jersey Boys state that the performance contains a gunshot and ‘genuine New Jersey language’. This intrigued me more than anything else: we’re in Scotland, how many f-words could it possibly take to shock us?
In all seriousness, I genuinely looked forward to this, and for good reason. Jersey Boys is a timeless classic that follows the rise and fall (and rise again) of the epically famous 70s group, the Four Seasons. Fronted by Michael Watson as Frankie Valli, the show chronicles how four boys ‘from the wrong side of the tracks’ manage to make a name for themselves.
Lights go up on a set designed to look like we’re backstage at a rock concert: metal rigging and LED screens that keep the narration going by flashing ‘spring’, ‘summer’, and so on alongside pop-art illustrations to emphasise the way in which the Four Seasons entered mainstream American culture. It’s effective, drawing us into Tommy Devito’s conspiratorial tone and making us feel as if we’re being let in on a secret.
I had seen neither the film nor the musical before, so was initially confused regarding the plot structure. The first act is narrated by Tommy (Simon Bailey) and Bob Gaudio (Declan Egan), though it’s not certain what their focus is. Though at first, it’s all about the music, it then switches into a heavy narration about the more grisly, human aspects of fame. Somehow, it backtracks on this more honest plotline and returns to the music. It’s only in act II, with narration by Nick Massi (Lewis Griffiths) and Frankie, that we get the swing of things.
Indeed, the second act far exceeds the first. Massi is an intriguing character whose story frames the way that the band falls apart. His deep voice and charismatic silence make for a self-aware, declining but not pessimistic chapter in the band’s history. Further, act II is when we get to see how stardom has impacted the group. Through all of this, the audience remained unfailingly enthusiastic. I noticed several people in the vicinity singing along, and the show was often interrupted by long bouts of applause after a particularly good song.
These songs form a narrative frame through which we view the more private aspects of the band’s story. Hits such as Bye Bye Baby and Walk Like A Man bookmark significant events both public and private, and moments of reflection on the cost of fame. It’s these implications that I found the most compelling. It’s emphasised that the band became successful thanks to ‘the people’ and their roots as ordinary, misguided young men. We’re also asked to question what worth success has when one’s family and friendships are threatened.
The production is peppered with little nuggets that make it memorable. Scene transitions are smooth and comical; the ensemble’s ever-shifting roles add colour to the background; the constant, subtle sway of dancing and music emphasise how much the group lives and breathes their craft. The choreography is watertight and the shapes that the dancers form are visually gorgeous.
Despite the outstanding quality of the acting and singing (especially the talent of the musicians), I found that the production lacked some depth. The ending is far too neat – the Four Seasons enter the Hall of Fame and each member gets a light-hearted farewell that sounds far too much like ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. Additionally, though this is the story of the four men who formed the band, the role of women in the show is limited to one of two options: ‘ball-buster’, or accessory. It’s overdone and adds little.
Still, it doesn’t detract from the fact that the audience loved it, and the cast clearly did too. I anticipate glowing reviews from other publications, but I am lukewarm. Perhaps I ought to delve into the greatest hits and reacquaint myself with the 1970s.
PHOTOS: Brinkhoff Mögenburg