Performance review: Jersey Boys, QPAC

Prospero Arts delivers a finely crafted and well-sung, semi-staged version of ‘Jersey Boys’ in Brisbane.
Four men on stage with showbiz lights as part of Jersey Boys Prospero Arts performance.

A reimagined concert production of Jersey Boys is the latest offering from Brisbane-based Prospero Arts, the first of its concert series for 2024. Under ex-dancer Hayley Johnson’s management, the company started life in Brisbane in 2022. Its well-received concert version of Singin’ in the Rain was followed by an equally impressive The Wizard of Oz in 2023.

Johnson created the company to renew professional music theatre in Brisbane, at the same time, providing more opportunities for local talent to thrive. The mix of established and up-and-coming performers and creatives in Jersey Boys, many of whom are Queenslanders, is both admirable but also warranted. Four ex-graduates of the Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University’s musical theatre course are part of the 14-member cast.

The global success of this musical on Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons is as much about the complex story of their individual lives, as it is about the astonishing music they created. In this production, the jukebox musical is delivered with great panache, repeating its previous successful format of a cleverly semi-staged version alongside a first-rate cast and excellent musicians.

The Concert Hall stage offers an electronic backdrop emblazoned with the name “JERSEY BOYS”, also used to depict relevant imagery and video of the many scenes, cleverly designed by Craig Wilkinson with production by Optical Bloc. A series of platforms and levels variously represent concert staging, nightclubs, street and domestic scenes, and are well-utilised.

Minimal props and furniture keep the action moving, while Ben Hughes’ lighting adds depth and atmosphere, highly effective during the delivery of the songs. Penny Challen’s costume designs are splendid, catching the atmosphere of the 60s superbly, in the many sparkling jackets worn by The Four Seasons and the tight glittering frocks of the girls.

Direction and movement by veteran director, Martin Croft, who has famously been involved in every professional production of Jersey Boys in Australia over the past 15 years, is slick, fast-moving and packed with energy. The narration is taken up by each of the principal Four Seasons in succession throughout the show, and this is handled with aplomb, thoughtfully highlighting the characteristics and values of each band member.

Jersey Boys opens with a French rap version of ‘O, what a night’ with energetic dancing from the ensemble, demonstrating how international the band had become. Moving back in time, it then morphs into ‘Silhouettes’, with just a trio of musicians in a night club before Valli joins the band. Croft’s direction goes at a break-neck speed here, maybe because he felt the opening story lacks engagement and there is a need to move on. While there are some great songs, including ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ and ‘Short Shorts’ the production really only comes alive later in the first act. When Bob Gaudio joins the band – writing three great songs, ‘Sherry’, ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ and ‘Walk Like a Man’ – the show really takes off both onstage and for an elated audience.

Four performers on stage wearing red velvet suits, white shirts, ties and black dress paints. Two of them are playing the guitar while the other two are singing. There are columns of screens in the background, projecting glittery gold imagery and the American map.
‘Jersey Boys’. L to R: Connor Crawford, (Tommy DeVito) Jack Saunders (Bob Gaudio), Josh Mulheran (Frankie Valli) and Glaston Toft (Nick Massi). Photo: Joel Deveraux.

The Jersey Boys are played respectively by Josh Mulheran (Valli), Jack Saunders (Gaudio), Glaston Toft (Nick Massi) and Conor Crawford (Tommy Devito). All are splendid, with strong musical theatre backgrounds and having performed in previous Jersey Boys productions. Additionally, Toft has played Massi in every professional production of the show in Australia, with a total of some 1600 performances.

As Valli, Mulheran gives a strong, believable dramatic performance, while his ability to emulate Valli’s distinctive vocal falsetto is astonishingly good. We see him change from a gauche young singer with a wavering voice early in Act 1 through to a confident soloist in Act 2, rendering such songs as ‘Bye Bye Baby,’ ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You’ and ‘Workin’ My Way Back To You’ with great vocal power. A terrific all-round performance.

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Saunders is his match as Gaudio, the creative writer and member of The Four Seasons. Saunders’ dramatic persona on stage is excellent and his first song for the band, ‘Cry For Me’, is beautifully realised. As the second narrator of the story, he has some great lines and is excellent in this role.

Toft is charmingly laid-back with a delicious morose quality as bassist, Massi. Justifying the split in the band, as narrator, he has some telling lines to the audience: ‘You sell a hundred million records and see how you handle it.’ When he finally turns on Tommy, who has been his room-mate on tour for 10 years, with a number of expletives, it is hilarious and wonderfully delivered. He is an essential addition to the team.

Crawford’s Devito is suitably cocky and sure of himself and his abilities, with a fine Jersey accent and the morals of a gutter rat. As the opening narrator, he is superb and we get his measure immediately. His character weaknesses are all too apparent, but he plays and sings his role beautifully.

The timing of their movements and song delivery is collectively first-rate with some terrific choreography provided by Dan Venz.

The cameo roles are all well-realised and delivered, including Loren Hunter’s strong Mary, the frustrated wife of Valli. Glenn Hill’s splendid portrayal of the record producer, Bob Crewe, is spot on, as is Dale Pengelly’s mafia boss, Gyp de Carlo. Matthew Casamento’s Joey Pesci and Oliver Lacey’s Hank, later members of The Four Seasons, are a strong addition.

Conductor and Music Director, James Dobinson, steers a range of top rate musicians who provide excellent backing to over 30 songs delivered throughout the show. Their collective playing on ‘Rag Doll’ and ‘Who Loves You Baby?’ as the finale, is particularly impressive.

All in all, this is a wonderful, fun-filled, night in the theatre offering a highly polished, professional semi-staged production with a great cast of one of the classic musicals.

Jersey Boys
Director: Martin Croft
Musical Supervision: David Young
Musical Director: James Dobinson
Choreographer: Dan Venz
Swing-Associate Choreographer: Emma Hawthorne
Lighting Designer: Ben Hughes
Sound Designer and Operator: Geoff McGahan
Costume Designer: Penny Challen
Video Designer: Craig Wilkinson
Producer: Hayley Johnson

Cast: Josh Mulheran, Jack Saunders, Connor Crawford, Glaston Toft, Glenn Hill, Dale Pengelly, Matthew Casamento, Maxwell Simon, Emma Wilby, Sophie Perkins, Loren Hunter, Oliver Lacey and AJ Pate

Jersey Boys has a limited six-performance run, playing until 11 February at the Concert Hall, QPAC.

Suzannah Conway is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She is a freelance arts writer and has been writing reviews and articles for over 20 years, regularly reviewing classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals Most recently she was Arts Hub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer.