Last night, for reasons so obscure they do not need elucidation, one found oneself with free tix for self, Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink and Fruit Of One’s Loins at the Melbourne opening night of the latest run of Jersey Boys, the autobiographical re-telling of the rise and rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons from the mean streets of New Jersey to mega-stardom and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
First opening night I had ever been to. Always good to rack up a first when already ensconced in one’s middle years. I don’t suppose it’s likely to happen all that often, so the credit card treated us all to dinner on the pavement at an ancient bistro next to the theatre (the type where you have to ask the price of the bottle of wine then you shouldn’t be there) and it was really quite amusing watching minor celebs arrive and be interviewed on the red carpet and photographed in front of the banners for the show and all that fluffy nonsense. Wannabee starlets primped and preened and wandered around squeezed into dresses that resembled sequin-encrusted handkerchiefs rather than practical garments. Luckily it was a warm night.
The PR hacks and the journos and the publicists and the great and good of Melbourne society swirled around, all trying to work out who was looking at them without anyone noticing that it was them that was doing the looking, and in general, a good time seemed to be being had by all. The whole thing was about three millimetres deep in societal relevance, and all the more fun for that. The former conservative Treasurer of Australia, Peter Costello, sat behind and above us in the circle. What my Mum would have called “the cheap seats, for the genteel poor”. It was only continual nagging by the Memsahib that prevented me from pointing out to him that the socialists had the better seats.
This multi-award winning show, which has already done amazing business in the USA and around the world, just seems to roll on and on. Almost everyone I know had already seen it, and I had actually not bothered last time it was here – “Frankie Valli? Pfft!” – so I wasn’t overly geed up to finally make the show.
But what an error, Dear Reader! This was musical theatre at its most approachable, enjoyable, and even, on occasions, genuinely moving. All around the world right now I have friends and readers telling me how they are flocking to see the musical movie version of Les Miserables and coming away feeling sad and drawn. My advice? Forget “The Glums”, (it’s a thoroughly depressing book, it was a thoroughly depressing stage show, and now, apparently it is a thoroughly depressing movie), and hithe thee instead to the nearest production of Jersey Boys. Fly, if you have to. Because it’s a corker.
With a set that brilliantly combines the raw simplicity of steel, echoing the mills and hardships of the young lads’ backgrounds, with witty, eye catching video effects and massive TV panels (allowing the very clever tromp l’oeil effect of combining on-stage performance with genuine footage of the audiences watching the original Four Seasons performing on shows like American Bandstand), the overall effect is to encourage one to suspend disbelief entirely, and to feel one is back in the late 50s and 60s, witnessing the birth of a genuinely mass-movement popular music phenomenon, and the effect it had on both the participants and the society surrounding them.
The Melbourne production was previously singled out by critics as amongst the most impressive worldwide, and I am sure the same plaudits will rain on the heads of the current cast, choreographers, stage designers and musicians. At times, Canadian actor Jeff Madden channelled Frankie Valli himself with a passion and credibility (and the “voice of an angel” that made Valli so famous, with a natural falsetto that defied belief) that meant one had to pinch oneself to remember that the real Valli is now 78 and all this was a very long time ago. But all the cast were flawless. The sets were tight, the timing impeccable, the dialogue convincing, and above all, the music sublime. It was a perfect reminder, and in my case a reminder was needed, that these young people were responsible for some of the finest pop songs ever written and performed. Their talent and their popularity was certainly rivalling other mega groups like the Beatles at the time, or the later Abba, and they deserve to be recalled with affection and some awe. Especially the song-writing and producing skills of Bob Gaudio, charmingly brought to life by Decaln Egan.
What made the evening truly special were a few moments when the audience, swept away by the talent on display, both inherent in the music and in the performances of the young cast, hollered and whooped their full-throated appreciation.
As if taken somewhat by surprise, the cast allowed themselves a little self-regarding emotion, occasionally just taking a second to the thank the audience for their enthusiasm, throwing in the occasional bow, nods of thanks, and smiles, with sparkling eyes.
It was charming, unforced, and it seemed entirely appropriate.
It further blurred the line between history and today, between acting and reality, between New Jersey and everyone else, between the entertainers and entertained.
For a moment the bond between actors and audience really did feel like that curious and intimate mesh that binds pop idol and fan, that can make one feel bereft and bereaved at the death of a John Lennon or a Freddie Mercury, or in genuine awe of the athletic rawness of a Bruce Springsteen or Roger Daltry, or warmed by the sheer good naturedness of an Olivia Newton-John or Cat Stevens or fundamentally,and sometimes life-changingly, stirred by the righteous wrath of a Bob Dylan. In the music of these giants of the entertainment world we see glimpses of them, the real people behind the carefully-constructed images, and thus in turn of ourselves, expressed in new and meaningful ways.
Now and again, last night, we were privileged to feel what Frankie Valli and his friends gave their many fans. And it seriously rocked.
If you’ve forgotten, well, here you go. Do yaself a favour. Some of the video is a bit dodgy. The music sure as hell isn’t.
Melbourne’s Herald Sun loved the show too. As they did in Adelaide. And in Sydney, the Sunday Telegraph commented “Jersey Boys isn’t just a cut above most musicals; it’s in a different league”. And the Syndey Morning Herald raved “This is easily the best musical ever – truly thrilling – the hits explode from the stage with verve, polish and conviction.”
You can also see exclusive footage of the Melbourne show with cast interviews on this blog.
Well there ya go, and now you know. Be there or be square, man.