JERSEY BOYS AT THE NEW ALEXANDRA THEATRE, BIRMINGHAM
Theatre Run: Tuesday 9 December 2014 - Sunday 4 January 2015
Performance Reviewed: Wednesday 10 December 2014 (Press Night)
Reviewed by Kyle Pedley
There’s something regrettably formulaic and inevitable about most biographical actor-musician pieces of theatre of late. It’s a format that often leans far too heavily on familiarity with its soundtrack and the spectacle of a Bolan or Lennon being re-imagined and strutting around on stage, and the notable casualty comes in the form of any compelling narrative shape or use of theatre as an artistic medium in it’s own right. Truth may indeed be stranger than fiction, but when so many of these shows race through the ‘true story’ with haphazard abandon, presenting more a career ‘greatest hits live’ than a focused piece of theatrical storytelling, it isn’t hard to end up feeling your evening would have achieved the same effect in the hands of Youtube or Google. The customary ‘talented boy does good, hits the heights of fame, leads to personal/family/suffering wife problems’ second Act trope being rolled out ad infinite usually only underlines how de rigeuer and stale it has all become.
It’s a testimony then, to the conviction, execution and polished slickness of Jersey Boys that all of the above to some extent applies here, and yet the overall effect is a show which is irrepressibly winning, consummately entertaining, and whose pros manage to completely outshine any of those particular occupational hazards. It’s the same piecemeal, choppy dipping in and out of over three decades of the story of Franke Valli and the Four Seasons, from their slightly meandering startup through to the mega hits of the 60’s and 70’s and right up to their indictment into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 19990. Fortunately, the songs, from ‘Sherry Baby’ to ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ and ‘December, 1963’, are a slew of crowd-pleasing and instantly recognisable classics, fortunate given that you’ll be screaming out for some sort of emotional connection by the time the interval arrives.
That’s not to imply the characters are not engaging, for they are; the four leads giving incredibly well-defined and charismatic performances. Each vocally, physically and idiosyncratically ring true to life, and the dynamics between the group are expertly judged, the frisson and chemistry palpable throughout, and they certainly elevate the pedestrian structuring of story and narrative happening around them. Tim Driesen is indescribably superb as Valli, his voice not only commanding that strong falsetto but doing so with what seems like an effortless ease. Stephen Webb adds shade and a certain love-to-hate flavour as the more morally dubious Tommy DeVito, Lewis Griffiths is a commanding physical presence and meets it with a brilliant deadpan simplicity as Nick, and Sam Ferriday is earnest and likeable as talented singer-songwriter Bob Gaudio, child prodigy of ‘Short Shorts’ fame. Matt Gillett gets a look-in and ramps up the camp as manager Bob Crewe, whilst Damian Buhagiar gets to inject some you-never-knew-it fun as a young Joe Pesci (yes, that Joe Pesci).
The cast are terrific, it’s just the show seems to struggle with exactly what to do with such great characters and gets blinded by the necessity to carry on ticking off it’s list of well-known career moments, whilst tiptoeing occasionally into band conflict, monetary problems, and possibly the most ephemeral familial subplot in a show like this yet seen. It’s not quite fair to label Jersey Boys simply a 2 and a half hour tribute act, and to do so would mostly be an insult to the sensational core cast who carry the whole thing very confidently on their shoulders, but at times it does come perilously close to earning such a moniker.
If you don’t mind sacrificing the meat on your theatrical narrative bones, or are an ardent fan of Valli or the Seasons, then what remains is utterly commendable and enjoyable fare. As mentioned, this is an extremely confident, well-oiled production which bursts with high production values and an even higher roster of talent. Klara Zieglerova’s somewhat industrial staging design is minimalist by necessity but works well and is surprisingly evocative of time and place when complemented by Howell Binkley’s bold, metamorphic lighting. Jess Goldstein’s costumes and Charles Lapointe’s hair and makeup harmonise to capture each particular era with understated authenticity, and there is a general sheen to the whole thing which feels lifted straight from the West End (as the production is). Kudos to all involved for replicating the full London experience so professionally and faithfully on the road.
Whilst Jersey Boys may carry many of the foibles and pitfalls of the particular ilk of theatre it finds itself in, in truth it is still a firm and evident crowd-pleaser. The infectious, upbeat breadth of genuinely classic and enduring pop-rock hits met with the stunning performances, high production values and stellar arrangement work ensures it is a show which with some real clout raises the roof, the audience from their seats, and ensures that everyone leaves proclaiming (Oh) what a night!
(A)MUSINGS RATING - * * * * (4 out of 5 Stars)
+ Slick, impressive, West-End quality production
+ Driesen is a sensational lead
+ Uniformly excellent cast
+ A swathe of classic Valli/Four Seasons hits to savour
+ Musical set pieces and arrangements are frequently sensational
- Formulaic, vignette structure and actor-musician approach
- Struggles to find an emotional footing
- Overly abrupt ending
JERSEY BOYS is running at the BIRMINGHAM NEW ALEXANDRA THEATRE from Tuesday 09 December 2014 to Sunday 04 January 2015.
Alternatively telephone the New Alexandra Theatre’s booking line direct on 0844 871 3011.
Press tickets for this performance of Jersey Boys were provided courtesy of the New Alexandra Theatre directly. (A)musings Media gratefully acknowledges their generous invitation.