REVIEW: Jersey Boys - Sunderland Empire, until Saturday, March 31

The cast of Jersey Boys musical.
The cast of Jersey Boys musical.

Oh what a night, late March, back in twenty eighteen, what a very special time for me ... it doesn't quite have the same ring to it!

But it sums up what was a nostalgic and thoroughly entertaining evening at the Sunderland Empire - what a night indeed!

Jersey Boys is a biographical journey through the rollercoaster rock and pop life of The Four Seasons and their lead singer Frankie Valli, from their struggles in the 1950s as The Four Lovers (among other guises) to the original line-up's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.

It is cleverly told in four acts - Spring, Summer, Autumn (or Fall, as they say across the Pond) and Winter - corresponding to the birth, rise, demise and resurrection of the band, and each narrated by a member of the four-piece. They tell a gritty tale born in the tough streets (and prisons) of Newark, New Jersey, not one of glamour and fortune, but of huge debts, break-ups, gambling, gangsters and relentless toil.

But out of that creative maelstrom emerged a catalogue of classic songs that have truly stood the test of time. And we were treated to at least snippets of most of them - the three chart-toppers that kick-started their glory years, Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry and Walk Like a Man; the pop standards December 1963 (Oh What a Night) and My Eyes Adored You; and the song that launched Valli's solo career, Can't Take My Eyes Off You.

The linchpin of the band and the musical, Francesco Castelluccio, as he was born, was played with unerring accuracy by Dayle Hodge, who was standing in for the UK tour's principal Valli, Michael Watson. Hodge was excellent, possessing an amazing vocal range comparable to the man himself, including that trademark falsetto. He was assured, yet exposed his character's vulnerable side in equal measure.

He was supported by three great talents in Simon Bailey (who played baritone Tommy DeVito), Declan Egan (tenor Bob Gaudio) and Lewis Griffiths (bass Nick Massi), whose deep, raspy tone sent a joyous shiver down the spine. Their harmonies were jaw-dropping and the chemistry between them fizzed. Musically, they were on point, and their acting would take some beating, as they switched effortlessly between the two.

I couldn't take my eyes off them - their nifty dance routines were captivating.

The fab foursome were ably backed up by the remaining cast, with special mention to James Alexander Gibbs as a young Joe Pesci, the Oscar-winning actor, who was instrumental in the formation of the Four Seasons when he introduced them to singer and songwriter Bob Gaudio.

Particular praise, too, for the orchestra, who were very much part of the performance, with some being wheeled around on stage to suit each scene - a technical headache that was flawlessly executed.

The production was quite a surprise to me - it was less jukebox than I had imagined and more storytelling - and there was little in the way of a rousing, dance-along finale reprising all the favourite numbers, which is commonplace in musical theatre. As such, it was more solid drama and less sugar-sweet musical. Even the grimy, industrial-style set gave it a real edge.

As we headed off into the chilly night surrounded by people singing those endearing and enduring tunes, I thought to myself there will be many who'll be working their way back to the Empire for another dose of '60s and '70s memories.

Jersey Boys runs at the Sunderland Empire until Saturday, March 31, with performances at 7.30pm every evening except Sunday, and 2.30pm matinees on the Wednesday and both Saturdays. Visit the online ticket office for more information or to book.