The story of Franki Valli and The Four Seasons returns to London’s West End soundtracked by a ridiculous cavalcade of hits like Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like A Man, Beggin’ And Can’t Take My Eyes Off You. How can you go wrong with some of the greatest music of all time layered over a gut-punching story of extraordinary triumph, betrayals, infidelities, mobsters and personal tragedy? Unfortunately, this disappointingly flawed pared-down production had a good go.
The highlights include an impressive turn from leading man Ben Joyce as Frankie Valli. Fresh out of drama school, he handles the extraordinarily tough multi-octave challenge with flair and has real charm and some great moves.
Benjamin Yates has the swagger and selfishness as the self-destructive Tommy de Vito, matched by beautiful vocals, even if his Jersey accent wanders across the Hudson River and occasionally The Atlantic. Adam Bailey is sweetly awkward as songwriter Bob Gaudio and Karl James Wilson is a drily distant presence, just like his role in the band.
Each of them takes turns to narrate the Four Seasons’ incredible rise and fall. There is so much to pack in, the frustratingly episodic format sacrifices any real depth as major personal and professional events skim by. This is a true story and a remarkably interesting one, so I constantly wanted to know more but was frequently given very little. It all just feels like a relentless rush to the next admittedly fantastic song. Only at the very end when each of the four delivers an individual signing-off monologue to the audience was there any real emotion. A pity the production denies them the chance to do more elsewhere.
There is also an utterly inexplicable, jarring final act plot lurch. A family member dies in 1980, the band has scattered and Frankie is at his lowest point. Seconds later we’re suddenly at the band’s 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame. I had no idea what just happened and little chance to care.
The pared-down production means a small supporting cast works extremely hard, tripling and quadrupling up on roles. They give it their all, but it often blurs and at one point Frankie’s two backing guitarists became the two main mobsters, with no change of clothes or hair.
Mark Isherwood deserves credit for bringing various secondary characters to life with real flair, and Melanie Bright does nice work as Frankie’s abandoned wife Mary.
As for the staging, it consists of two metal spiral staircases and a walkway overhead, plus occasional chairs, tables and beds wheeled on and off. There is also a low-quality digital backdrop projecting basic cartoon images and the logos for various venues. Costumes are largely forgettable. As the locations and years whip past, there is no sense of time or place at all. It feels low-rent for London’s West End. Pared-down can be inventive, intimate and visceral. This is not. Especially when top-price tickets come in at an eye-popping £125.
The stage direction is also extremely pedestrian and repetitive. Having a devastated partner, the ghost of your dead daughter or a quitting band member always walk across stage right, up the staircase and then exit left along the gangway in a slow ‘sad’ trudge is no substitute for any sort of emotional impact.
It’s a shame. Much can be overlooked in a jukebox musical where the draw is the iconic music itself but too many of the songs are truncated. Worse, the new reduced cast and disappointing staging expose the limitations of such a superficial take on a truly extraordinary story.