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London Theatre Reviews

Ryan Molloy( Frankie Valli) and Stephen Ashfield (Bob Gaudio)/PH: Brinkoff & Mogenburg

OH ,WHAT A NIGHT!

By Matt Wolf

True, London audiences watching Jersey Boys may not get all the references American audiences do, but the songs are bound to start the juices flowing and the feet a tappin'

The stagecraft is the star of London's premiere of Jersey Boys, the Broadway smash that may be met with considerably more bemusement across the Atlantic. Why the difference? For one thing, there's no escaping an English audience at multiple removes from the story of four New Jersey working-class guys made good, whose celebratory reference to their home state - not to mention Goodfellas' Oscar winner Joe Pesci - were met with either blank stares or polite acknowledgment at the final preview caught. And why should it be otherwise, given a title that would seem to refer to UK ears to prepubescents in the Channel Islands? Or, perhaps, to something hip and happening along Old Compton Street, home to the Prince Edward Theatre and a thoroughfare where the word boys has an altogether different meaning.

But then, all of a sudden, Des McAnuff's staging will isolate a melodic moment or send its four defining characters into the musical clinch and a becalmed evening takes off like a rocket: a city that loves its jukebox musicals has never seen one on this order. Buddy beware! In fact, a second glance at Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's book confirms the degree to which Jersey Boys tries to move away from the putative template for this genre, using the songs only to advance the story - Sherry comes a good 40 minutes into the first act - or, as in the case of the mournful second-act deployment of Bye Bye Baby, as a leitmotif of lamentation for Four Seasons' frontman Frankie Valli (Ryan Molloy), as seen at that point in his life when an ever-upward spiral has gone dramatically into reverse. With the staggering assist of Howell Binkley's sculpted shafts of light, for which the designer won his own Tony,McAnuff can make the multi-tiered playing space of Klara Zieglerova's set seem by turn intimate and epic, with the assist of the projection design of Michael Clark, which makes the theater audience feel as if it is always part of some larger collective.

There's a thrilling moment when Stephen Ashfield's otherwise not always credible Bob Gaudio launches into Oh, What A Night, the performer's firm vocals at intriguing odds with the depiction of this T S Eliot-quoting sexual innocent who was also the brains behind the group's comet-like rise. (And whose real self was abundantly in evidence at the performance caught.) Of the show's four principals, special mention must go to Philip Bulcock as the most laconic of the group, Nick Massi: the actor's craggy features and taciturn manner absolutely of a piece with the Martin Scorsese-like mean streets, Jersey-style, that these guys largely called home. (For what it's worth, the opening paean to New Jersey - voiced by Glenn Carter's square-jawed Tommy DeVito - elicits no response whatsoever.)

So, how is Molloy in the fiendishly demanding role that catapulted Broadway unknown John Lloyd Young to stardom - and a Tony? At present, it's probably best to think of his performance as a work-in-progress, a starmaking gig that will gain in physical and vocal confidence as the run continues. He's not always entirely attuned to the jivey rhythms of Sergio Trujillo's choreography, and his voice tends to get helium-like in the nether reaches of Valli's weirdly brilliant vocal range give Molloy a song that sits more comfortably in his middle register - My Eyes Adored You, for one - and he's on home ground, as he is in a series of intense tete-a-tete boo