Hit songs make for a hit musical

March 28, 2008

Prince Edward Theatre, London W1

It all started in 1989. No, not Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the subjects of this exhilarating Broadway import. They started in the early ’50s. What started in 1989 was the kind of musical for which the most important ingredient is not the ability to write an original score, but the money to buy the stage rights to hit songs by a great pop group. What began with The Buddy Holly Story is now the nearest thing producers have to a dead cert — the dumbed-down diminution of the great American musical that is the back-catalogue show.

To this end the back catalogues of bands like Abba, Blondie, Madness and Queen have ended up on stage. But even if the music fails to feel like part of the story, fans of the band can often be relied upon to keep ticket sales ticking over.

In Jersey Boys there is no such chasm between plot and music. Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman’s book is the biography of the band. It is an interesting story. Tommy Devito (Glenn Carter), Nick Massey (Philip Bulcock) and this kid with a unique voice called Frankie (a brilliant Ryan Molloy who alternates in the demanding role with Scott Monello) were a small-time band and part-time hoodlums from New Jersey.

A talent scout called Joe Pesci — “yes, that Joe Pesci” — introduced Devito to the middle-class Bob Gaudio, a songwriting genius inspired by Valli’s voice to write hit after hit. Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You… so many hits you leave the theatre punch-drunk.

The show has Gaudio and Valli’s backing and there is more than a whiff of hagiography about the book, which skims over the record company’s attempts to hush up their pop star’s criminal records — now you cannot get a deal without one.

But with Brickman’s involvement — he co-wrote some of Woody Allen’s greatest films, including Annie Hall — there is a good deal of one-liner wit on offer. And Molloy transmits the hard-edge, Sinatra-like quality of a talent with Mafia connections.

But Des McAnuff’s superbly drilled production relies on the songs to make their emotional impact. And like all back-catalogue shows, the heart beats fastest when the drama takes back seat to the pop concert. (Tel: 0844 482 5151)

Last updated: 4:39pm, June 3 2008