WALK LIKE A MAN!
Over the last few decades, we’ve seen the birth of a new genre of show: the infamous jukebox musical. From the ABBA-inspired global megahit ‘Mamma Mia’ to the more recent productions of ‘The Cher Show’ and ‘Moulin Rouge’, Broadway has felt it necessary to broaden its appeal to include wider audiences. We’ll never know for sure whether it was to further its appeal to tourists, or to simply diversify musical genres on the Great White Way, but what we do know is that the whims of Broadway eventually make their way down to community theatre circles around the world.
The jukebox musical ‘Jersey Boys’, penned in 2005, tells the story of legendary pop vocalist Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Written by Marshall Brickmann and Rick Ellis, and with an impressive onstage legacy, running on Broadway for over 12 years, nothing is left out of the band’s origin story. From the group’s inception, their stints in prison, their troubles with money, and the ups and the downs of being one of the most famous boy bands of the time, the show is a rollercoaster that holds nothing back. However, it was the intelligently intertwined songs from the Four Seasons’ immense catalogue that got audiences, young and old, on their feet proving why this show is always destined to be a crowd-pleaser.
Thomas Armstrong-Robley played double duty in Redcliffe Musical Theatre’s production of ‘Jersey Boys’, not only directing but also starring as Tommy DeVito, one of the overbearing original members of the group. As Director, Armstrong-Robley created a comprehensive, cohesive world where everything just seemed to belong.
The pacing was perfect throughout, with curated pauses and moments of mania equally balanced, allowing the story to move along without losing any of the details. From the ever-changing era-appropriate microphones to the impeccably tailored suits, there was a clear attention to detail from Armstrong-Robley that gave the whole production a sense of realness. Embracing the documentary style of the show, the director allowed each character their moment to shine and find their own spotlight, and the production was all the better for it. It truly felt like a masterclass in direction.
Although the set was simple – the stage framed by two imposing black staircases – the use of levels added enough variety to create a sense of movement between the multitude of locations in which the show is set. This simplicity allowed the additional set pieces – beautifully stylised with black tops and silver bases – to just do their thing without feeling clunky or unnecessary.
Scene changes were kept smooth and subtle, negating the use of overextended blackouts, helped by the well thought out multi-purpose set pieces used to smoothly change location as the show moved forward. A particular highlight was the funeral scene, where the illusion of the coffin was hauntingly beautiful.
A world away from today’s melody-focused pop songs, the hits of the ‘50s and ‘60s were full of intense four-part harmonies. Guest Musical Director Robert Clark and Assistant Musical Director Matt Rofe managed to successfully recreate the nostalgia-filled vocals, with strong, solid harmonies throughout from all four ‘Jersey Boys’. No mean feat – especially after two-and-a-half hours of constant singing.
Opening night jitters meant that the microphone levels were sometimes unbalanced between the show’s four leads, losing that true top-heavy Frankie Valli falsetto sound for several of the show’s major songs. The sound was also occasionally unbalanced between the singers and the smoking 10-piece live band. This is something that is easily fixed and undoubtedly will be firmed up over the show’s run.
Choreography by Jennifer Morrison was stylised and wholesome, heavily influenced by the boy bands of the time. Iconic Four Seasons moves were lapped up by an appreciative audience, Morrison’s era-appropriate moves were simple but effective allowing the music to be the star.
Lighting design by Thomas Armstrong-Robley and Chris Walker was generally high quality, using the theatre’s scrim and moving lights to their full potential during the bigger, brighter numbers – iconically creating Jersey Boys silhouettes to an extremely appreciative audience. However, faces were regularly in darkness throughout many of the show’s scenes, and the lack of a physical followspot operator meant that many monologues were delivered in darkness until the actor found their specific light. It definitely didn’t detract from the experience, but when Community Theatre is this good, minor things become noticeable. These timings will undoubtedly get better as the show continues to run, but if the Redcliffe Cultural Centre doesn’t own a followspot, they should invest in one quickly.
Alexander Thanasoulis’ Frankie Valli was well-rounded and likeable. The journey from his initial youthful naïveté to his eventual problematic marriage and family life was beautifully handled and a joy to watch on stage. While it took a few songs to get completely comfortable, once Thanasoulis found his true Frankie Valli iconic falsetto, it echoed around the auditorium of the Redcliffe Cultural Centre, frequently sitting on top of the intense harmonies like the star upon a Christmas tree (Hopefully, the sound technicians will bump up his microphone in subsequent shows to showcase it even further.) It was however, his emotional performance ‘Can’t Take My Eyes off of You’ that was a clear highlight of Act 2, with onstage horns and an audience more than ready to sing back up. Thanasoulis showed buckets of class and charisma vocally wowing the four-hundred strong audience, completely embodying the essence of Frankie Valli
As Tommy DeVito, Thomas Armstrong-Robley was a triple-threat powerhouse opening the show with infectious energy. Full of unbridled vitality and a chest-load of charisma, he was the perfect narrator for Act 1, leading us through the convoluted story with ease. Armstrong-Robley’s DeVito was self-confident, self-involved, and above all else arrogant as hell, and it was a delight to watch on stage. In a show without a scripted villain, DeVito’s moments of deceit and betrayal were the perfect palette-cleanser from the story’s overall bubblegum feel. Wisely, Armstrong-Robley allowed these moments to ground the show, both as a director and performer, reminding the audience that these were real stories and real people.
If it were COVID safe, Matthew Leigh would have been showered in roses and (clean) underwear after his outstanding performance of ‘Cry for Me’ as legendary songwriter Bob Gaudio – a clear Act 1 highlight. His vocals were silky smooth and effortless, encompassing the style of the era. Leigh was the perfect boy-next-door. His characterisation of the eager, but intelligent child prodigy was top drawer and he had the audience eating out of his hand with his witty one-liners always landing.
Rounding out the Jersey Boy Quartet was Jeremy Clark, playing bassist Nick Massi. Although his character is relatively understated in Act 1 (basses, am I right?), it was his Act 2 monologues that brought down the house into fits of laughter with Clark showing an amazing sense of comic timing. Knowing exactly when to breathe, when to pause and when to smash the next punchline is a tricky feat, and Clark pulled it off with aplomb, allowing the audience to find his character incredibly relatable. He was someone’s uncle, their brother, their son and his tirades were the perfect light-hearted relief the show so desperately needed.
The Four Seasons are like a great cocktail. The individual ingredients are fantastic on their own, but it is only when they work together that they create the best they have to offer. This was very much the case in Redcliffe Musical Theatre’s production of ‘Jersey Boys’. Gaudi, Valli, DeVito and Massi were fantastic in a vacuum, but it was the camaraderie and the relationships that the actors built on stage that allowed the show to become magical.
The rest of the fourteen-person cast were equally as strong and equally as well directed. Particular highlights included Lyndon Steele’s over-the-top and energetic Joe Pesci – giving more golden labrador than Home Alone burglar. Similarly, Dale Shearmann’s hilariously camp depiction of American record producer Bob Crewe, and Claudia Pereira’s feisty Mary Delgato, with a genuine New Jersey accent so thick you could cut it with a knife were absolute crowd favourites.
Overall, the team at Redcliffe Musical Theatre have created an outstanding piece of theatre with ‘Jersey Boys’. Advertising ‘QPAC Quality at Redcliffe Prices’ could have been a risky strategy but they delivered with spades, creating a show full of detail, charm, charisma and energy. It truly deserved the standing ovation it got on opening night and deserves to continue to get them throughout the rest of their run.
‘Jersey Boys’ by Redcliffe Musical Theatre plays until March 21 at the Redcliffe Cultural Centre. Tickets are available from https://www.redcliffemusicaltheatre.com/jersey-boys.html
This article was edited by Shane Webb.