Jersey Boys, Prince Edward Theatre, London<br />Chains of Dew, Orange Tree Theatre, London<br />Days of Significance, Tricycle Theatre, London

In this musical biography of The Four Seasons, the set lacks charm, the script is a little over-confident, but the cast is faultless

Rhoda Koenig
Sunday 23 March 2008 01:00

Sheh-eh-ree! After a dozen false starts and fumbling efforts, the great mating cry of The Four Seasons blasts out to tremendous effect, followed by all those stirring pre-sexual revolution anthems of resentment ("Walk Like a Man"), renunciation ("Dawn, Go Away"), defiant anguish ("Big Girls Don't Cry"), and gloating threat ("My Boyfriend's Back"). Jersey Boys has plenty to justify its reception in America, where it is not merely a mega-hit but a franchise.

The effervescent music and the stride-stomp-kick choreography are great fun, the casting is brilliant, and Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman's chronicle of the boys' gritty working-class milieu is full of clever lines. My favourite was the one that bursts from an awestruck member of the group when, as if answering their prayers for a catchy name, that of the Four Seasons bowling alley lights up in neon ("It's a sign!"). That naive sweetness, however, is in short supply in the script and in the tone of Des McAnuff's production, both of which feel over-confident.

British audiences might benefit from a stronger sense of New Jersey, a sad-joke state known for Mafia ubiquity and that pungent metaphor, the glue factory. The women's roles in this unusually male musical are small and few. Even so, there is a lack of warmth and vulnerability – the actresses are either too timid or too brash to get their jokes across. The set is as ugly as it is trite (that bog-standard scaffolding again), the arch Roy Lichtenstein-style projections are out of kilter with a show about people who are unsophisticated and sincere, and in the second act, which concentrates on the troubles of the lead singer, Frankie Valli, the tighter focus is not balanced by greater emotional depth. But if Jersey Boys mistakenly equates cockiness with charm, the high-grade professionalism of its singers and actors cannot be faulted, beginning with Ryan Molloy, a hunted -looking young man who replicates Valli's powerful falsetto to thrilling effect. The other three Seasons are the amusingly petulant Glenn Carter, the adorable Stephen Ashfield, a fresh-faced lad whose style is more Connecticut than New Jersey, and the repressed-but-intense Philip Bulcock, who has a great line in silent glowering. The very droll Simon Adkins alternates cooing entreaty and flick-knife dismissal as the group's lyricist, a fearlessly camp practitioner of a love that, in early-Sixties New Jersey, did not generally dare to breathe its name.

Unseen since its American premiere of 1922, the curious comedy Chains of Dew, by Susan Glaspell, is sparky, silly, annoying, and touching in roughly equal measure. Kate Saxon's extremely well-cast production has to struggle against a first act set in a New York magazine office where everyone apparently sits chewing the fat all day. Finally, however, the married poet Seymore Standish declares his passion for editor Nora Powers, setting off the far livelier second act, in which Nora descends on Standish's midwestern doll's house to light a fire under his downtrodden wife. The conversion of the demure Mrs Standish to fanatic campaigner for birth control creates plenty of good comedy, as does Nora's confrontation with midwestern philistinism and complacency: a matron calls the region the heart and backbone of America; Nora says that New York is happy to settle for being its brains. Glaspell is better at wisecracks than characterisation or plotting, but the evening offers a triple treat in the delightful performances of Katie McGuinness as the wife who becomes nearly deranged by intellectual excitement; Helen Ryan as Seymore's beautifully behaved mother who adores mischief in others; and especially Ruth Everett, as Nora, who creates non-stop chaos with a big, happy smile.

Inspired by Much Ado About Nothing, Roy Williams has set his RSC-commissioned play in a town centre where Ben's attempts to copulate with Trish outside the local nightclub are checked when he rolls on to a girl lying in a pool of vomit. The emphasis in Days of Significance, however, is not on loving but fighting. Indeed, the characters let scarcely five minutes go by without verbal or physical violence – a girl threatens to cut the face of a companion for accidentally spilling a drink on her, obscene taunts are used as both insult and endearment, and the boys jovially urinate on one another when they are not punching their comrades in the head. These products of our free-market democracy may not be the most convincing arguments for its adoption in Iraq, but the Army accepts two of them, only one of whom returns, to face charges of having tortured prisoners.

In Maria Aberg's fluent and visceral production, the play powerfully damns the society that produces and ignores these characters, all of whom are portrayed with energy and honesty. Williams has rewritten Days of Significance since its Stratford premiere two months ago, considerably improving the ending (now a showcase for the exuberant talent of Beverly Rudd as a boozy bride). But the report of the torture is even briefer and blander (it might be more useful to show it rather than a routine battle scene), and there are still too many improbabilities and distractions (a vicious, volatile girl becomes a university student and is infatuated by a middle-class friend; the same girl gets drunk and makes a crude pass at her stepfather). Williams also jumps from one attitude or issue to another without lighting long enough to tell us about the boys' backgrounds and motives. He has, however, written the definitive description of these unhappy youths: When they jeer at a man running a burger stall, he snaps back, "You're nothing but fast food yourselves."

'Jersey Boys', 0844-482 5151; 'Chains of Dew', to 26 April, 020-8 940 3633; 'Days of Significance', to 29 March, 020-7 328 1000

Kate Bassett is away

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