Well then, Jersey Boys is finally here in Edinburgh and at The Playhouse Theatre...was it worth the wait? I asked myself this question as Jersey Boys is one of those shows that so many people I have met have told me I have to see. When a show is like that it can only go two ways. Either the show lives up to the praises heaped on it by others or it fails miserably. Well, tonight, I have to now agree with all those people and say that this is a great show and missing it in Edinburgh would be a real shame.
The show is (as you may know already) based on the true life story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Reviewing a show like this without turning the review into a history of the band and its members is always difficult as that is what the show is, but it is the stage show that people are going to and not a Four Seasons tribute band.
The obvious "tribute band" feel that this show might have had has cleverly been lost by the way writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (writers of the book too) have handled the material. This is a documentary style musical/drama of four young men from New Jersey (hence the name Jersey Boys) as they rise from the back streets in the 1950s, creating a unique vocal group sound, selling nearly 200 million records worldwide and getting inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. The clever vehicle of giving each of the four group members his own story to tell is what makes this show so interesting, as each member has a different story to tell and a different view of what happened as the group hits national and then international fame and then starts to fall to bits as it becomes a trio, then a duo, then finally Frankie Valli on his own.
The Four Seasons are Frankie Valli (Tim Driesen), Bob Gaudio (Sam Ferriday), Nick Massi (Lewis Griffiths) and Tommy DeVito (Stephen Webb).
The original project for this show was started off by Bob Gaudio himself who had the fledgling idea of a musical that eventually became Jersey Boys. As the writers sat down and talked to the surviving original members of the band they were given some of the "real" background to their lives that had never been oficially told before and this is what gives this show its edge.
The first story we hear comes from Tommy DeVito and for the first time we learn of the environment that the original members of the various bands they were involved with at the time grew up in. These boys were on the wrong side of the tracks and some of them in and out of prison for small time (and not so small time) crime. The only thing that was saving them from a life of more serious crime was their music. We also learn for the first time of the boys' early connections with "organised crime" as Frankie sing "My Mother's Eyes" to the local crime boss.
Things sort of struggle along until a young Joe Pesci (yes the later Hollywood actor) introduces them to Bob Gaudio who at 17 is writing his own material and trying to follow up his earlier novelty hit with The Royal Teens of "Who Wears Short Shorts". This is where the magic really starts as a combination of the unique vocal range and sound of Frankie Valli and the fledgling harmony and songwriting talents of Bob go to work. After a few mis-fires, the boys finally get a chance to record one of Bob's songs and it is "Sherry" that, although written very quickly, provides them with that first unique Four Seasons sound and their first number 1 record. Two other number ones - "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like A Man" - follow on very quickly. Bob and Frankie also at this time agree on their famous "Brooklyn hand shake" contract over music royalties and rights.
There are many incidents in the story as it unfolds and the personal issues of the bands' relationship just starts to tear them apart. One of the biggest issues of course has to be that while on tour the band find out that Tommy owes some unpleasant people $150,000. Frankie calls in a favour from his old neighbourhood mob boss to try and sort things out. At this point it is decided after negotiation to "buy" Tommy out of the band and pay off his debts. Things get more complicated though as the debt is now up to $162,000 and Tommy admits to around $500,000 owed in taxes. Taking on nearly $1 in debt, the remaining members move on.
Next to go is Nick Massi as he leaves the band just to be with his family more. This leaves only Frankie and Bob from the original band. Frankie now needs songs and Bob has plenty of them to come (Bob works on many of these with lyricist Bob Crewe who is not in the show). One of the surprses here is the struggle that Bob had to get the classic "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" recorded and released.
What this show surprisingly let me know tonight was just how much I had under-estimated the songwriting talents of Bob Gaudio. Bob is a songwriter of outstanding quality and his seemingly simple but complex songs have stood the test of time. They were at the time good enough to allow the band (along with their unique sound) to survive the Beatles invasion of America (and many bands did not survive that) and allow them to go on to many more international hits.
Everything is now going fine in Frankie's life, the debts are being cleared, the hits are coming in, then personal tragedy strikes. Go and see the show yourself to find out what, as telling you here would spoil some of the show.
The show tonight is great and everyone on stage can really act and sing, but of course special place must go to the incredible vocal talents of Tim Driesden as Frankie Valli. Finding a singer with the vocal range and power of anything near approaching Frankie Valli was not an easy task for anyone, but Tim more than does the job tonight. Frankie Valli's story is the last segment to be told and it is also Frankie who has the final words of the show. In the end, this is a story as much about the tensions and strains of personal relationships as the music. With only a very slight change of circumstancs in their younger days, this could have been a very different outcome. A life of crime was always just around the corner for the young Jersey Boys (Bob excluded here) and music was their saviour.
Jersey Boys is at The Playhouse Theatre until Saturday 25th October. If you get the chance, go and see this show.
Review by Tom King