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Review: Jersey Boys at the Liverpool Empire ***1/2

There’s hardly a household in Britain that hasn’t been affected by one of this winter’s range of illnesses – and it seems the lurgy has also struck down the cast of Jersey Boys.

Hence a list of changes for press night at the Empire that included two of the Four Seasons, an errant daughter and even Hollywood hardman Joe Pesci.

Still, luckily for the team behind this new touring production – telling the turbulent story of the New Jersey quartet – Jersey Boys is very much an ensemble musical where the tunes do the talking, not a name above the title.

And James Winter and Karl James Wilson, stepping in as Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi respectively, deliver such assured performances anyone watching would assume they were the original choices for the roles.

Read an interview with Simon Bailey

Listen to their close harmony songs or see them scrubbed up in matching jackets and bowties, and you’d imagine the Four Seasons were as sweet and wholesome as mom’s apple pie.

But as Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s biographical script proves, appearances can be deceptive.

Coming from the tough Irish-American neighbourhoods across the Hudson River, Tommy DeVito (Simon Bailey, he of Teatro and Once Upon a Time at the Adelphi) and Nick Massi knew what the inside of a correctional facility looked like, and even fresh-faced, falsetto-voiced Frankie Castellucio (Michael Watson) dallied with the wrong crowd. And by wrong crowd I mean DeVito and Massi.

Only mild-mannered Bob Gaudio, teen composing prodigy and the ambitious brain behind the Four Seasons’ rise to fame, kept out of mischief.

All this unfolds in a classic story arc of a band which struggles, makes it big and then implodes under the weight of its own fame and fortune – and misfortune.

In a way the story arc is mirrored by the action in this hit-packed show, which takes what seems like an eternity (if eternity was 40 minutes) for the group to claw its way from obscurity to the top of the charts, the lengthy exposition peppered with segments of songs.

Then, not long before the interval, the show and the Four Seasons reach a glorious zenith with a trio of songs – Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry and Walk Like a Man – performed in thrilling four-part harmony with Watson’s brilliant ‘head voice’ Valli vocals soaring free.

After the break the group begins to implode, as all successful music acts are wont to do, and the show loses some of that thrilling energy as the individual stories spiral off in different directions.

While the production’s energy levels may vary, the vocal work is uniformly excellent. And the four central characters also act as narrators during the evening; a neat device which works well – Bailey oozing cocky, rough charm as the wise guy DeVito, and Wilson, as Massi, delivering a Beatles’ analogy which is met with knowing laughter by the Liverpool crowd.

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