First Night: Jersey Boys, Prince Edward Theatre, London
The hits keep coming but Frankie frustrates despite
Wednesday 19 March 2008
As a genre, the jukebox musical can be relied on to throw up more junk than most. The back catalogue of no pop group or artiste is now safe from theatre producers hungry to make a lazy buck.
Who in their right mind laments the speedy demise of Desperately Seeking Susan, a show which, with scarcely any dramatic justification, shoe-horned the hits of Blondie into a leaden rehash of the movie? And on Broadway recently, Good Vibrations and All Shook Up have concocted feeble narrative excuses for a collection of cover versions of the Beach Boys' and Elvis's golden oldies, while signally failing to repeat the success of Mamma Mia!
But what about Jersey Boys, which now lands in London, brandishing four Tony Awards including the 2006 gong for Best Musical? This pop-compilation show adopts, by contrast, a straightforward biographical approach as it follows the Italian-American blue-collar guys who eventually became the Four Seasons from the streets of New Jersey to induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. This was the Sixties group with the Fifties doo-wop influenced sound and the trademark falsetto of Frankie Valli and Jersey Boys delivers the goods whenever the fine stand-in singers are allowed to fly with the magnificently catchy musical material. But after a mischievous start in Paris, 2000 with a French rap version of "Oh What a Night" ("Ces Soirees-La"), Jersey Boys flips back to the start of the saga and keeps us waiting through about 40 minutes of bewilderingly detailed background about the genesis of the group before treating us to an elating blast of "Sherry", their first big hit.
The book by Woody Allen collaborator, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice has a terse, savvy wit. Drolly complemented by projections of Roy Lichtenstein-style Pop Art cartoons, Des McAnuff's vigorous production flows slickly on its rudimentary industrial-scaffolding set. And in strong, soaring voice, Ryan Molloy skilfully intensifies the emotional power as the diminutive Frankie over an evening that embraces brushes with the Mob, a failed marriage, and betrayal by one of his partners.
But while the songs ("Big Girls Don't Cry", "Walk Like A Man" et al) touch a deep nerve, the idea of Jersey and many of the cultural references fail to stir the requisite strength of emotion in a British audience. So here, much of the short-winded drama feels like an exercise in vicarious nostalgia – a trip down somebody else's memory lane. The show's knockout moments are all musical, as when the brass section troops on in laid-back glory during the rapturous "Can't Take My Eyes Off You".
Too good be true? In general, Jersey Boys is more a case of "Oh What A Faintly Frustrating Night".
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