Jersey Boys Review – ‘the drama falls flat’

The lead actors march around on stage like four dads thrown together on a charity tour of the YMCA.

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Photo: Brinkoff and M. Agenburg

After enjoying nine years in London’s West End, Jersey Boys is touring regional theatres in what seems to be an effort to squeeze as much worth out of the show before it becomes confined to the dusty archives of other irrelevant jukebox musicals. Initially, the conveyor belt of hits from the 1960s pop group ‘The Four Seasons’ dazzles musically but, before long, it drones on in a fast-paced narrative that sells the actors short and struggles to retain interest – and this is coming from a massive fan of musicals.

The show follows the rise and fall of Frankie Valli and his co-stars Tommy Devito, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi as they aim to conquer the American music scene with their catchy, nostalgic tracks. Like every great musical, they encounter problems along the way, dealing with reckless money spending, big egos and group conflict. However, their biggest issue turns out to be a deeper longing for home and family. The musical manages to capture the relentless grind of the music industry and the actors do a great job at imitating the original members of the band, but the text fails to surpass much more than a smattering of superficial conversations and a chain of barely relevant pop songs.

Indubitably, the show serves its purpose as a documentation of events, but the attempt to squeeze the personal story of four men’s careers into a two-and-a-half-hour spectacle becomes tiresome. The lead actors march around on stage like four dads thrown together on a charity tour of the YMCA. Luckily, what they lack in charisma they make up for in technically flawless vocals and blend. The pace, however, leaves them short-changed of any valuable characterisation: the four heroes are given little time to establish any sense of individuality or substance to the extent that I felt completely disinterested in their success and emotional development.

Perhaps it would have helped if their female counterparts were given even a fraction more stage time, or were written with a modicum of personality beyond their roles as wives and lovers. I am all for the historically accurate portrayal of a male-dominated music industry, but the snippets of action the female cast were granted were an insult to both the actresses and the real-life figures they play. As a show that has so much possibility to say something worth saying about the music industry and its pressures on relationships – Hairspray being a good example of issues in the 1960s-television industry – the drama falls flat.

A special mention, however, must go to set designer Klara Zieglerova and lighting designer Howell Binkley whose set and lighting design work together seamlessly. A sequence of backdrops effectively illuminate the stage with rich colours and help to unify the costume, light and set. It is not easy to create something so visually engaging when the narrative moves so quickly through the settings, but the details were impressive.

Yet here lies the main problem: the show is so fast that the audience never gets the opportunity to pause and take stock. Jersey Boys is an endearing story of unlikely success, but the rags-to-riches narrative is hardly new. If the show is to enjoy success with the newest generation of theatre-goers it will need to push at the boundaries of its narrative potential. At a time when most successful new musicals of today are proving that the form does not have to be all glitter and ham, I can only assume that the clumsy art of jukebox musicals like Jersey Boys is going to quickly lose interest – a rewrite would not be a bad idea.

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