THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
Jersey Boys and the Trafalgar Theatre are back, and both are better. In 2004 the old Whitehall Theatre was split into two rather forlorn spaces: a steeply raked type of lecture theatre and a tiny studio, where you had to time your movements with whoever shared your bench seat. Now that's all, thankfully, been stripped away and they've reinstated the original heritage design for this 630-seat auditorium. Plush, colourful, upholstery contrasts beautifully with black and silver décor which exudes Art Deco splendour.
Into this jewel has landed Jersey Boys which first arrived from Broadway in 2008 adding an Olivier to its Tonys and Grammy. It ran till 2017 and toured forever, having also run concurrently for a dozen years on Broadway.
The reasons for its success are obvious. The public adores those eternal Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons hits, the soundtrack to many a youth and a kind of pop music with a distinct, emotive, blue-collar appeal. It's nostalgia even if you didn't live it, which is probably the best kind.
The other reason is the book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, which is razor sharp and keeps the story moving at a cracking pace. The tale of the band's emergence from the wrong side of the tracks in New Jersey is told straight and never shies away from the darker elements. The piece was written in 2005 amid Sopranos mania and that influence is certainly felt. It also doesn't shoehorn the songs in, the way of the worst jukebox shows might. Instead, the focus is firmly on the drama. There's little or no sentiment, and when those songs finally explode upon us, and the fired-up audience wants to party it holds back a little. This is a brave decision by director Des McAnuff, but it pays off dramatically, otherwise why not just put on a concert? This is no feelgood Dirty Dancing party, even if the songs are pure pop.
Casting is a tough one as it's not really one for stars. The vocal demands, especially on the lead, are heavy. Having to recreate THAT falsetto 8 times a week. Here they have found a young man, Ben Joyce, straight out of Mountview drama school who really delivers. At first barely noticeable as the callow youth playing second fiddle to the dodgy Tommy De Vito, who founded the band, he soon shines. Joyce, making his professional debut, has the voice and the moves down, but also has the kind of theatrical instincts for those things you can't really teach.
Benjamin Yates too brings a great edgy undercurrent of malice to the brash Tommy, essentially a petty criminal who could never leave the hood behind and nearly imploded the band once his huge debts to mobsters were uncovered.
The book interweaves the perspectives of each of the 4 band members which gives refreshing angles on the story. So, we get Karl James Wilson as Nick Massi who humbly admits to being “the Ringo of the group” and escapes as soon as he can. Then, there's Adam Bailey who really shines as the more introspective Bob Gaudio. He's the clean-living one who wrote all the music as well as providing a steady guiding vision for the band as it grew.
Inevitably the pressures of fame and touring and their onslaught on family life and normality became too much and the books is great on how showbusiness, in the end, is a hard slog.
The piece is slimmed down for this smaller space, and it gains from it. It's more intimate, more dramatic and there's a closer connection to the audience. All in all, 'Oh, What a Night'.