Updated: Aug 2
Review by Sam Waite
The West End loves a jukebox musical, if the trends of recent decades are any indication. With & Juliet and Moulin Rouge! bringing contemporary pop music and sensibilities into what are still largely period stories, Mamma Mia! continues a long and triumphant run using the songs of pop supergroup ABBA to tell a largely original story. Where Carole King-centric Beautiful and boyband odysseys Ain’t Too Proud and The Drifters Girleach had their time in the spotlight, no bio-musical has proved as enduring as Jersey Boys, still running at the Trafalgar Theatre.
Brought back to London only four years after its original run closed, Jersey Boys tells the story of legendary pop group The Four Seasons, weaving songs by the band and their contemporaries into stories more scandalising than modern listeners may realise. The music is, of course, made up of veritable classics and you hardly need me to tell you whether or not they're good – streaming, YouTube, and your parents’ old records are all readily available to you. Vocal arrangements by Ron Melrose help reintroduce these old numbers, but your enjoyment of the score is directly linked to your enjoyment of the band themselves.
Des McAnuff serves as director for this iteration of Jersey Boys, and has a real flair for positioning his performers to create memorable, visually impactful scenes. Looking back on the performance, there are scenes I remember so vividly because of how he framed them, not just guiding the performers through a brisk, ever-evolving story, but how his choices of their positioning informed the emotion of these scenes. When lead singer Frankie Valli delivers a powerful “Fallen Angel” near the end of the show, his placement in regards to the scenery and lighting would make the weight of the sequence clear without words or music.
Speaking of music, the sound design from Steve Canyon Kennedy proves to be involving and entertaining, bringing to life the scenarios and settings the group find themselves in. When performing in concert, the music and voices are as loud and raucous as one would expect, but Kennedy’s amplification or reducing of the sound allows for settings from a table far from the stage to an empty, echoing church to be brought to life. Likewise, Howell Binkley's lighting clarifies the grandeur (or lack of it) of certain settings, and in a powerful moment towards the end of act one threatens to overwhelm the scene and the audience with the sheer magnitude of the lights – a clever, if on-the-nose, metaphor for the incredible success the band were finding.
Marshall Brickman, an Oscar winner for Annie Hall, and Rick Elice, a former stage actor, had their first of a handful of collaborations with the book – their work is thoroughly engrossing, despite falling into many of the showbiz cliches we've learned to more openly roll our eyes at in the nearly two decades since Jersey Boys premiered. In a clever move, each of the original Four Seasons takes a roughly equal turn as narrator, reframing the narrative and leaning into the idea that each of these men, or at least these fictional versions, thought of themselves as central and essential to the group’s success. This neatly sidesteps the possibility of one becoming the obvious “good guy” and allows for more audience interpretation than one might expect from this show.
Scenic design from Klara Zieglerova and costumes by Jess Goldstein help to set the time period as much as the music itself. Zieglerova’s constantly exiting and re-entering set pieces bring rooms to life in our imaginations without the need for multiple full-scale sets, which the metal walkway overhead allows for the upstairs of houses and hotels, parallel streets, and even the backstage areas of the many gigs and engagements we follow the Four Seasons to. Goldstein’s costumes will help diligent fans to keep track of when we are in the band’s career, and add a visual flourish to the dynamic, true-to-life choreography of Sergio Trujillo.
Trujillo clearly understands the period as well as the musicians themselves, but his choices of steps and movement are also used to great effect in shifting scenes. As the band moves into a TV performance, they will step seamlessly from their previous scene into a routine directed to a camera, projecting their steps onto a screen above the stage. Michael Clark serves as projection designer, and alongside these smart moments of multimedia performance, he also uses the screen to display pop art relating to the dialogue, and to subtitle four loose “chapters” in the story through the use of, of course, the four seasons.
Declan Egan and Karl James Wilson perform as two of the original Four Seasons, Egan as songwriter Bob Gaudio and Wilson as bassist Nick Massi. Both supply plenty of heart and humour, contrasting nicely with Wilson as a born and bred Jersey boy who feels pushed aside despite his loyalty-first values, and Egan as the more upstanding, proper young man who clearly feels some sense of superiority and is more than willing to strike the deals that will suit him best in the long run. Both sing their parts marvellously, never falling into the background even as lead singer Frankie Valli becomes a superstar before our eyes.
In one of two West End debuts, Peter Nash takes on the first round of narration as hard-gambling ne'er-do-well and self-proclaimed group leader Tommy DeVito. Without losing those rough edges and the commanding persona, Nash is able to instil enough genuine compassion into Tommy’s relationships with Nick and Frankie that DeVito’s exit from the group – owing to personal differences and his significant debts – feel like a genuine loss. His voice, one of the trio bringing a depth of tone to support Valli’s famous falsetto, is strong and distinct, lending credibility to a line about DeVito’s strong musicianship later in the musical.
Francesco Castelluccio, a young barber-in-training who instead becomes a worldwide sensation as Frankie Valli, is played by Luke Suri in another West End debut. Somewhat to my surprise, having been mostly unfamiliar with the work of the Four Seasons, and with Jersey Boys itself, Valli was not the immediate focal point of either the group’s success or the musical's story. When he does take centre-stage, Suri's strength as an actor becomes apparent – where Frankie had previously gone from Tommy’s new discovery, to his protégé, to his employee in all but name, his own personal tragedies fierce attachment to loyalties allow Suri to stun with both explosive and subtle shifts in emotion.
Unlike the more measured nature of his acting in those early scenes, his power as a vocalist is instantly recognisable. That softer, more youthful portrayal balances spectacularly against the emotional heft put into his singing, where Suri bubbles emotions to the surface and keeps them clear and deeply realised without sacrifice or agility. Valli will always be known for the unusual power and control of his upper register and soaring falsetto, but Suri prices to not only have this same mastery, but to have a rich and resonant voice throughout an impressive vocal range.
Still a crowd pleaser and a genuinely good time at the theatre, Jersey Boys proves time and time again why it has become such a success. Yes, the trappings of a musical biopic are all there, and yes they're just as cringe-inducing here as in Bohemian Rhapsody or Elvis. Still, the show is a great deal of fun and will continue to have an audience for as long as nostalgia is strong – that is to say, it will always have an audience. If you love the Four Seasons, you'll find plenty to love here. And if you don't love the band, you may be surprised just how much appeal Jersey Boys holds for you.
Jersey Boys is currently booking at the Trafalgar Theatre until January 2024.
For tickets and information visit https://jerseyboysmusical.co.uk/ticket-information/
Photos by Marc Brenner