Words: Simon Button; Photography: Mark Senior
To call Jersey Boys a jukebox musical is to do it a disservice. Rather than a bunch of songs strung together Mamma Mia!-style to tell a made-up story, it uses the music of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons to chronicle their rise to fame.
And as scripted by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice and directed by Des McAnuff, what a fascinating tale it is.
When it first swung round to the West End in 2008 (three years after its Broadway debut), I was fascinated to learn about the New Jersey foursome’s humble beginnings, Mob connections, their friendship with Joe Pesci (of GoodFellas fame), their spats and fall-outs, and Frankie’s personal woes.
That production, in the cavernous Prince Edward Theatre, was bigger than the scaled-down version now playing at the smaller, magnificently restored Art Deco treasure that is London’s Trafalgar Theatre.
I think the new production is better, offering a more intimate insight into the men behind such indelible music as ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘Walk Like A Man’ and ‘Let’s Hang On (To What We’ve Got)’ plus of course ‘December 63 (Oh What A Night)’ - the band’s signature song that opens the show.
Left to right: Ben Joyce, Adam Bailey, Benjamin Yates, Karl James Wilson in Jersey Boys (Photo: Mark Senior)
To hear it sung in French, in a Paris nightclub, is a bit jarring but once the story hits its stride it’s stealthily told, set cleverly across four seasons with multiple narrators who move the story along and the band’s studio and stage performances done with great panache.
Adam Bailey, Karl James Wilson and Benjamin Yates as Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito respectively are all terrific while Ben Joyce does a brilliant job of recreating Valli’s falsetto without slavishly imitating it.
Making his West End debut, Joyce also nails Frankie’s frailties and skilfully ages from wide-eyed boy to tragedy-rocked man. A couple of bum notes: He’s sometimes forced to struggle against the too-loud music and some song snippets feel shoehorned in.
But we do get ‘Oh What A Night’ again at the end, in its original English, as a crowd-pleasing coda that brings the show to a rousing finish.
Oh what a night indeed.
Jersey Boys is at the Trafalgar Theatre, London, and is currently booking until 2 January. For great deals on tickets and shows click here.