Stagecraft: Libretto: Performance:
This dazzling, wildly popular show opened with an updated, French rap version of Oh What a Night to showcase the massive influence and longevity of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Even if you know nothing about their lives, unless you’ve been living in a hole for the past few decades you will know their songs; either the originals or covers by a variety of artists such as Lauryn Hill. The Playhouse was filled almost to the brim with a friendly, unpretentious crowd who were there for the love of the music. You could almost feel the blended swirl of happy nostalgia as the audience tapped and sang along.
It’s a warts-and-all story of the original group’s rise from poverty and petty crime in a working-class Italian-American neighbourhood to the heights of international fame and fortune. Told from the perspectives of each of the four original band members, their fascinating journey is multi-layered and nuanced. It’s easy to empathise with their passion and determination to escape their fate, beginning with the excitement of Bob Gaudio the songwriter (played sensitively by Sam Ferriday) hearing Frankie Valli’s unique falsetto for the first time and feeling compelled to work with him. Matt Corner makes a fantastic Frankie Valli; his voice unwaveringly clear and sweet through a vast variety of songs, taking us right through from their big break with mega hits like Big Girls Don’t Cry and Walk Like a Man, the poignant love song My Eyes Adored You with his estranged wife, Mary Delgado (Amelia Adams-Pearce), the many band member changes and all the way to their induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The accents took a little getting used to, especially Tommy DeVito’s (played confidently by Stephen Webb) almost tipping towards pastiche at times. But then you remember. This is ‘Joisey’. Newark, New Jersey. They actually speak this way. The Italian-American culture comes through strongly; from the family bonds, emotionality and Catholicism, and in the necessary protection provided by Mafia man Gyp Decario (Mark Heenehan) who bails them out of various scrapes, mainly caused by swaggering, gambling macho guy Tommy. The now outdated attitudes to women and gay men are clear, even though the women are certainly no meek pushovers. Interestingly, ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ was co-written by Bob Crewe, their producer and lyricist (played by Joel Elferink), for his boyfriend, even though undoubtedly this was under the radar at the time. All the characters are sympathetically played, and we share in their emotional pain as the original band, and indeed, their families, implode under the stress of life on the road. The Mafia connection is handled lightly, but certainly isn’t hidden, and you realise that even gentle Frankie Valli inevitably gets mixed up in petty crime and Mob influence because of their environment.
The set was generally kept simple and unobtrusive, but was highly inventive at times, especially as they buy their first flashy car as part of their ‘American Wet Dream’, as Tommy cheekily suggests to Frankie, and when the perspective is turned around so that the audience feel for a moment what it’s like to be under the pressure of the bright lights. The huge screens that complemented their early TV appearances helped to show their sudden impact on the music world. Stephen Webb did a fantastic job portraying swaggering, problematic Tommy DeVito. His body language and voice made him compelling to watch. Lewis Griffiths was the quieter, self-possessed ‘Ringo Starr’ of the band, Nick Massi, who was the first to walk away as the band’s tight dynamic unravels. The banter between such different characters keeps the story peppy, and sprinkled with comic moments. The women are for the most part, in the background, but their stage presence is strong and the costumes elegant and eye-catching. Wonderful harmonies and lively numbers throughout the show keep up the energy, especially as the crowd knew them well enough to sing and sway along.
This show returned to Edinburgh only a few months after its last run, and is still playing to a packed house for good reason. An entertaining and interesting story from beginning to end, the team ably packaged the twists and turns of a decades-long story into a punchy and highly enjoyable show. As the last number, ‘Who Loves You?’ exploded in its full glory, with an illuminated live brass section framing the singers and dancers, my ‘old-at-heart’ teenage daughter, with an unusual penchant for crooners in glitter-lapelled suits, was giddy with joy.
Reviewer: Lisa Williams