Oh Jersey Boys. You made this cynical musical fan admit that jukebox shows could be decent when he first saw you back in 2006, but that was a world of mindset away. Now, in your newer, bigger London home, you seem... different... somehow.
The script is still the same, American humour and all, and perhaps part of the issue is the obviousness of the foreign tourists laughing at the jokes when the locals are oddly silent (minus, of course, the Ringo joke at the end) or dealing with a theatre that holds 600 people more than in New York. Perhaps it’s the feeling of being in on the gig as the audience stumbles for the first time through Act One, still maintaining an old locomotive’s slow yet steady acceleration, and then watching as they facepalm one after another as the crowd begin to recognise the songs and make the association with the band whose name nobody can remember and whose material none shall ever forget.
Seriously, though, Jersey Boys has made it across the Atlantic with few hitches and speed bumps, and while it’s not a sellout - yet - the producers are counting on word of mouth to make this show a hit, and if last night’s first preview crowd is anything to go by, a hit they shall have. While some of the material hasn’t translated (and may be subject to change during previews - nothing was altered for this first performance), the core story of rags to riches, brotherhood, and the trials and tribulations of fame is universal. So are the songs, catchy as ever and more lush than when done live originally, thanks to the joys of pit singers and expanded arrangements. Des McAnuff’s kinetic Dreamgirls-inspired staging is still as fresh and energetic as it was in 2005, and the punters up front were more than happy to join the party, dancing along to the final number and singing along during the encore.
Of course, the heart and soul of any transfer is the cast. While Ryan Molloy is slightly more nasal and lacks the power John Lloyd Young did on Broadway, he’ll certainly grow into the role with time, and as he is starting with a six show week, is less likely to destroy his voice doing it. Glenn Carter is a pushy Tommy DeVito, but his accent needs work and he (like the production in general) lacks the edge and confidence of his American counterparts. Rounding out the group, however, are two solid and likely to be underappreciated performers: Philip Bulcock as the quiet Nick Massi, and Stephen Ashfield as the boyish, brainy Bob Gaudio (whose real life counterpart is in town supervising previews). The ensemble are already up to a solid, engaging level, but can still benefit from notes and refinements during the preview period.
Barring any unforeseen difficulties, Jersey Boys will undoubtedly be giving a sharp, exacting performance in time for the March 18 press night. In some ways, the RZ is thrilled: the American musical is riding high and reminding the West End that well crafted entertainment is still out there, but in others is depressed, wondering when a worthy new production will sprout domestically from the UK. In the meantime, keep the imports coming until one does.
Where: Prince Edward Theatre
When: M-Sa @ 19:30, Tu/Sa @ 14:30
How Much: £20-£40 through 18 Mar., £32.50-£60 after
Concessions: Students can get 50% off 60 min. prior and subject to availability (read: when it’s not well sold). Restricted view seats in the upper circle are £20 including some in the first few rows (yay for safety bars).
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £42.50
RZ Other Notes: This is a hard one to assign the value to. On the one hand, it’s a smartly presented, well constructed crowd pleaser and every musical fan should see it once. On the other hand, Hairspray will stick with you longer and provide a more satisfying overall experience. If you’re British, the value listed is probably accurate - some of the material clearly went over peoples’ heads (perhaps they should watch The Sopranos more?). On the other hand, American tourists may find it well worth the full £60 just because it buys a decent seat, whereas a ticket of equal value in New York will set you back £175+ as a premium and £60 gets you a restricted side view or chopped off rear seat. Then again, the US tour almost certainly provides a better overall value with lower prices than either production and a reportedly excellent cast.
Continuing on the UK vs. US theme, the question raised in the RZ’s classroom, on the message boards, and in the minds of the producers really is whether or not the British public will take to the show enough to keep it running in the barn that is the Prince Edward. After going to last night’s preview, the RZ still isn’t sure, but is leaning towards the positive side: if word of mouth can get people to give in and buy tickets over the next three months, the show will be a hit and if the advance stays up for six months, will definitely stay put. On the other hand, if ticket sales are respectable but not mind blowing, the RZ could see Jersey Boys transferring to the Novello as the message boards predict, as it may maintain a healthy extended run in a smaller house (building the hype of a harder to get ticket as a result) while, say, Oliver comes in from TV casting to take the Prince Edward.
While the public will probably be converted to this show’s cause, the RZ is doubtful that the London critics will be equally entranced. Jersey Boys is well written and entertaining, but lacks the depth and layers that Billington, Spencer, de Jongh, etc. seem to require from anything that goes near a stage. While the local critics lack the power they do in New York, they are undoubtedly more demanding. The RZ also suspects that comparisons to Buddy, the biopic musical about legendary rocker Buddy Holly, will be unavoidable in the press.