Review of ‘Jersey Boys’: “Like a rolling ball of thunder”

The inspiring story about the rise of an iconic group by four men coming from nothing lives on now more than ever in the UK – thanks to the simultaenous London and national touring productions. Guillermo Názara tells us his thoughts about this jukebox show which has already become a classic in music theatre history, featuring some of the most influential songs of the last century.

Biopics are to the realm of fiction what direct-to-video films are to commercial integrity – a much expected disappointment. Though the former often excusing themselves by saying that they “intended to stay truthful to the events”, the real truth is that narratives dealing with past idols tend to be dull, predictable and, in general, pretty much all the same. Exceptions to that rule usually happen when their approach flies away from that overrated reality, basing its material either on gossip (leading to timeless masterpieces such as Amadeus) or a whimsical vision of abuse, depression and drug dependance (for further instructions, consult Rocketman). Given the fact that Jersey Boys is a musical, it would be sensible at the very least to anticipate another addition to that list, as both the nature of the genre and the uplifting flavour of its score in particular (it’s a jukebox) suggests a more sugar-coated treatment of its characters’ lives. It actually belongs to the Accurates Guild.

Written by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice, the show is a straightforward honest depiction of the rise, success and ongoing decline (both professional and personal) of rock and pop legends Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. Opening through the eyes of group founder Tommy DeVito (his contributions as a raconteur continuing through the course of Act One), the show chronicles the struggle of three lower class Italian-Americans to escape through their talents (and the help of Bob Gaudio’s) from a life where poverty, violence and criminality are imprinted on everybody’s skin. Their creatives would say it’s based on evidence, that it’s genuine and direct. That’s what they all say. Yet this time, they’re right and what’s more important about it – they’ve made it work.

Beginning with a rap number in 2000s France (yes, you’ve read right – I haven’t gone crazy nor have I changed my review’s subject), the plot jumps back in time to recall the origins of the Four Seaons’ ongoing legacy. Despite its opening having all of the ingredients of a proper musical, the piece starts to develop as more of play with songs, where all of the numbers work as either samples of the band’s creations or transitions from monologue to monologue. This, however, is a deceiving as the show’s opening, as the complexity regarding the narrative use of the score evolves in parallel with the characters’ journey – little by little, allowing us to connect with their feelings, passions, insecurities and, as it is to be finally revealad, a profound pain silenced by the dissonant chords of success.

Starting with exhilirating speed, the script can proudly boast of many high achievements, but one of its top ones is no doubt its brilliantly measured pace. It doesn’t feel too rushed, it never seems too slow. It’s just how it should be. The same can’t be said, nonetheless, about the set design. Featuring a fixed scaffolding structure working as both its proscenium and practical scenery, the only complements we’ll be witnessing through the evening are small props and a screen on the top. Is there something wrong with minimalism onstage? Absolutely not. And in this case, the rythm benefits from it. But to make it functional, it needs to follow the same rule even the most opulent counterparts do – transport the audience. With more of a 90s look and some animations that would have done better as practical elements, the scenic design (credit to Klar Zieglenova) regretfully fails to do so. It’s not terrible, and there are certainly some moments that are worth a watch and even a memory. But there’s, for sure, good room for improvement.

If a vital part from any production is its cast, in Jersey Boys that may come as its very foundation. And indeed this time they have secured a solid one. Benjamin Yates as De Vito might as well be its cornerstone, for the believability and magnetism he gives to the part (essential for the character’s demands) are not only intoxcating but highly admirable. Alongside, Adam Bailey, in the shoes of songwriting genius Bob Gaudio, proves good acting skills with a compelling vocal style much suitable for the show’s music genre. Finally, Luke Suri, as the story’s star, Frankie Valli, gives a striking portrayal which, though hidden at the start by a mechanical first impression, manages to dig deep into the role’s true core and project the essence of its human fragility.

Jersey Boys has been around (both the UK and all of the world) for quite a long time now. There has to be a reason why audiences seem (though it’s already been confirmed) to be love it, or may be a few, but whatever the case, it’s certainly refreshing to see fandom also happens to productions whose strongest component is its narrative. Creatives often say that musicals are all about that story (and in most of them, regardless of its lavishness, that’s correct), but in Jersey Boys is more than just the story – it’s its treatment, its writing, its theatricality that prove that it was quality that they were pursuing where conceiving it. If the general public can appreciate that, as apparently they have, then what else to ask for?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Jersey Boys plays at London’s Trafalgar Theatre from Tuesday to Sunday. Tickets are available on the following link.

By Guillermo Názara

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