Review of Jersey Boys at the Sunderland Empire - 'a real treat of a night out'
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It’s often bracketed as a jukebox musical, which is a little unfair. Whereas Mamma Mia! and We Will Rock You crowbar Abba and Queen songs into deliberately silly plots with glorious abandon, the numbers in Jersey Boys serve a deeper purpose.
The musical tells a (largely) true story. As it’s the story of a band the songs are fundamental, not incidental.
The central character is Francesco Castelluccio, 16 at the start of the show, who soon changes his name to Frankie Valli. He is recruited into a band by Tommy DeVito, a guitarist six years older then Frankie and a petty criminal. They are joined by bassist Nick Massi.
They are moderately successful performing cover versions as the Four Lovers. But their careers really take off when they are eventually joined by Bob Gaudio; a true pop songwriting genius who, despite being six years younger than Valli, is the group’s creative force. They become the Four Seasons.
As said above, this is something more than a jukebox musical. However, all the Gaudio songs that fans would expect to hear are featured.
They include Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Beggin’, Let’s Hang On, December 1963 (Oh, What a Night), Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and more including Bye Bye Baby; which was not originally recorded by the Bay City Rollers, as is often wrongly presumed.
The show is note perfect and the New Jersey accent was nailed by all; at least to these British ears.
Frankie Valli is played by one of our own; Michael Pickering from Sunderland, a former Thornhill pupil. Those familiar with the voice of the real Valli will understand how difficult it must be to capture his famously distinctive falsetto voice.
But the role requires more than mere impersonation and Pickering conveys the good, bad and sometimes tragic elements of the singer’s life very well.
Particularly impressive was Yorkshire actor Dalton Wood as wide-boy Tommy DeVito. Wood manages to make him shifty, feckless and utterly selfish, yet somehow likeable. No mean feat.
DeVito is probably the must fun of the main characters to play. But there are able turns by Blair Gibson as the sensitive Gaudio and Lewis Griffiths as the unsmiling, put-upon Nick Massi.
True, there is little depth to the show’s female characters, but a trio of actresses have a fair bit of stage time as various harridans, floozies, officious secretaries and women both smart and dumb.
Valli’s first wife Mary Delgado is the most prominent female character and captured beautifully by Emma Crossley. Think of the women in Goodfellas or The Sopranos. Crossley convinces as a Noo Jersey (in the real state they never actually pronounce it “Joisey”) housewife.
Despite some serious and downright dark moments, it still manages to be a feel-good musical. Give it a go if you can. It has the added attraction of being staged in the finest theatre in the northern half of Britain.
And let’s end with the now obligatory comment for a favourable review of Jersey Boys.
Oh what a night.
:: Jersey Boys contains strong language and has adult themes. It runs at the Empire until Saturday, April 2. Tickets can be bought online.