Jersey Boys | Theatre Review
Grand Opera House, Belfast • Runs until Saturday 22 September ’18
By Elizabeth McGeown
Jersey Boys has won four Tony awards, an Olivier award, ran for twelve years on Broadway and piqued the interest of Clint Eastwood enough for him to direct the 2014 film version. But it has never been to Belfast. At least thirteen years of waiting means that our as-good-as-sold-out audience expect a lot tonight. They expect the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons using the medium of songs, matching suits, a faultless falsetto from Michael Watson (our Frankie Valli tonight), humour, nostalgia and an encore we can all join in with. We know the musical theatre drill. But we’re not expecting quite so much of Grease-meets-Goodfellas as we get. Signs posted all over the Grand Opera House warn us to expect somewhat ripe New Jersey language so when a hint of ‘Joisey’ takes us on a whistle-stop tour of petty crime via social brushes with the Mafia, we shouldn’t really be too surprised. We’re in Frank Sinatra territory here; that singer being born in Hoboken, New Jersey. As Tommy DeVito tells us, there are three ways to get out of Jersey: going to jail, joining the Mob, or becoming a star. DeVito opts for the latter. Born in 1934 in a public housing project built atop a dump, is it any wonder our Francesco Castelluccio tried all three?
Simon Bailey’s Tommy tells us a lot. He’s our first narrator this evening with an abrasive, cartoonish style which is an acquired taste. He takes us through the early days; educating young Frankie about the ways of “ballbusting dames” and, rather more usefully, recruiting him for the band in the first place. It’s an era of hustling; of in and out of the local jail, constant band image and band name changes, a brief brush with adding comedy and a gorilla mask to their act.
Neighbourhood buddy Joe Pesci – yes, that Joe Pesci, as if the set-up wasn’t Goodfellas enough – introduces one-hit wonder Bob Gaudio into the mix and he takes over both as chief songwriter and as our narrator; shedding light on the creation of hits like ‘Walk Like A Man’ and the story behind ‘December 1963 (Oh What A Night)’. A meeting in the car park of the ‘Our Sons’ bowling alley and a serendipitous mending of the defective neon sign gives the band their permanent moniker, and they’re off.
And from the introduction of the hits, the show really takes flight. Enthusiastic applause meets each song, warm laughter greets Gaudio’s innocent arrogance, Declan Egan delightfully all teeth and eyes in this role. Watson begins to sound like the Valli we all know and love and the stage is set for success, despite distant rumblings of turmoil, divorce and Tommy’s ever deepening involvement with loan sharks. Not to forget the enigma that is Nick Massi, played by a deadpan and at times scene-stealing Lewis Griffiths. Enigmatic perhaps because when Jersey Boys co-writers Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman interviewed the other three members of the band to hear their stories, Massi was already dead, having passed away in 2000. The strong silent type doesn’t speak until at the end of his tether and in the end leaves the band because the idea of quitting just came out of his mouth and he “knew it was the right thing to do”.
The set is minimal and moveable. The ever-popular double staircase with adjoining walkway is present throughout and the live band play behind a wire mesh at the back of the stage. Mic stands are pushed towards the singers rather than the other way around, and they’re all perfectly height adjusted every time. Any backdrop is provided by a large screen, alternating between a sunset skyline (where the drummer fits in perfectly against the silhouetted skyline) and the Ed Sullivan show, to Roy Lichtenstein-style pop art images of brokenhearted women and macho men.
The music of course, is joyous. In the words of Bob Gaudio in those interviews with Elice and Brickman, words that are recreated on stage by Egan, “We weren’t a social movement like The Beatles were. Our fans were the guys who were flipping burgers and pumping gas and the girls behind the counter at the diner – real blue collar workers.” Their private lives may have been complicated, but the music was simple, unadulterated pop and as the audience leave with ‘Who Loves You?’ ringing in their ears, it’s with a sense of understanding the music even more now they know the stories behind it.
Jersey Boys runs until Saturday 22nd September at the Grand Opera House, Belfast.