Note: There has been a venue and cast changes since this review!
This show prompted an interesting question - well, interesting for me at least. And the question is: What makes a really memorable musical? I suppose there are at least two elements to any answer to that question. First, it has to have great songs that can get under the skin almost on first hearing. Second, a musical that's going to stand the test of time must have a compelling storyline. Of course, there are successful musicals with weak stories or poor songs, and some with both. So, where does that leave us? Well, in 'Jersey Boys' I think there is undoubtedly exceptional music, so it passes the first test. But the high quality music is combined with a mediocre kind of storyline that is neither compelling nor particularly original, and certainly springs no surprises. It might be important for those who lived through that story, but it's not terribly riveting for anyone else. In particular, I don't think it has much in the way of significance for people born in the UK. For Americans, it may well have more pulling power and this may be the reason it's already had such success on Broadway.
The 'Jersey' in the title of this musical refers to New Jersey, the state in the USA which brought the world the distinctive voice of Frankie Valli and the music of the Four Seasons. Not much seemed to be happening in New Jersey before The Four Seasons came on the scene. In fact, one of the characters describes it rather unpleasantly as 'the joke state'.
Essentially, we're presented with a musical and personal biography of the members of the Four Seasons. That's actually very helpful to the writers of the book as well as the director, because there's never a sense that the songs have been forced on the plot – which frequently makes me wince in other musicals where the cast suddenly burst into song for no apparent reason. Here, the songs fit because the show is about a group of musicians, and what we see is the progression and development of their musical style.
For those who love Frankie Valli's singing - and there are probably still lots around - this will be their kind of musical. There are almost too many hits in the show to count. Songs such as 'Walk Like a Man', 'Big Girls Don't Cry', 'Sherry', 'Can't take My Eyes Off You' etc etc. In fact, I didn't realise before the show just how many hits Valli and the Four Seasons had actually had. It's quite an astonishing achievement, almost overwhelming. So, it's little wonder that the producers and director have cut short most of the songs, leaving just a few to run their full course. This helps with the staging and the development of the storyline. We're also tantalised by the songs, but don't become bored with them, yet few will leave the theatre disappointed that their favourite song was left out.
'Jersey Boys' is a slick production, though there's nothing particularly innovative in the set design. The cast pretty much give their all and the whole thing moves along at a brisk pace with scenes flowing into each other without the need for prolonged scene changes.
However, the storyline in the first half left me unimpressed. I found it rather ordinary and never really felt particularly engaged. The audience seemed rather quiet too, perking up only when the songs took over. The story is narrated by members of the Four Seasons at different points in the show, and maybe this interferes with the development of characterisation. The drama does pick up in the second half, when Ryan Molloy as Frankie Valli asserts his personality and has to cope with almost overwhelming problems.
In the singing department, you'll be hard-pressed to find better on the London stage right now. Ryan Molloy is superbe as Frankie Valli, managing the falsetto vocals with nonchalant ease. Stephen Ashfield as Bob Gaudio also has a terrific singing voice. And the whole cast perform the songs pretty much faultlessly accompanied by a fine orchestra that never overwhelms the singers or the audience.
'Jersey Boys' is certainly more than your average musical if only because there are so many well-known hits in its score. But there's also a good blend of up-beat numbers and ballads to allow for gear-changes and illustrations of what's happening to the characters.
There's no doubt that with its high production values, terrific songs, great singing and slick staging, 'Jersey Boys' will give almost anyone a great night out and good value for money. But a memorable musical with true 'lasting power'? I think not, because the story is just not powerful enough. And I'm not sure if the show will mean as much to British audiences as it does to American ones. Only time will tell, I suppose.
"Slickly animated production."
Nicholas De Jongh for The Evening Standard
"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."
Paul Taylor for Independent
"It has a quality you rarely find in musicals - gritty honesty - as well as the best collection of pop hits since Mamma Mia!...Jersey Boys superbly captures the thrills and tensions of four testosterone-charged young men discovering fame and fortune after years of dogged failure."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"This piece remains very much a jukebox musical."
Paul Vale for The Stage
"It has the character, the narrative interest and the sense of place – as the backcloth indicates, the industrial badlands west of the Hudson River – to rise way above its genre."
Benedict Nightingale for The Times
"A pleasant, forgettable night out; no more, no less."