Musical theatre in New Zealand has been under the microscope in recent weeks. Ever since news broke that a touring production of The Lion King was granted border exemptions to enter New Zealand, the industry has been debating what needs to be done to enhance our locally grown productions so they can thrive on their own accord.
Amidst the debate, Jersey Boys has arrived to make a strong case for the industry's potential. Originally premiering in Broadway in 2005 and last in New Zealand professionally in 2012, this is the latest show from G&T Productions – formerly Amici – one of the country's foremost pro-amateur producers.
This time, they've gone fully professional, with the whole cast getting paid while the show will go to Wellington after its Auckland season. And Jersey Boys is perhaps the perfect musical for them to take the big leap into the professional arena.
While their last show, Mary Poppins, literally broke down opening night under weight of the technical requirements, Jersey Boys is a far simpler production. The show focuses on the songs and lives of the four original members of the Four Seasons – Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio.
It's not a big song and dance production, with limited staging and practical, industrial set from Harold Moot. It's a musical that is solely about the music, with 22 songs in the first act alone.
It means there's little for the cast to hide behind, but G&T seem to have struck gold. American Hayden Milanes, who portrayed Frankie Valli for four years in multiple tours, seems to have been born to play this role with an astounding falsetto that is matched by a commanding stage presence mastered through years in Frankie's shoes.
Local talent Fergus Inder and Matt Cranleigh are utterly convincing as Tommy and Bob respectively, while recent returnee from Australia Andrew Coshan makes up for the smaller role as Nick with his deeper baritone and swaggering performance.
It's likely only through Covid-induced luck this central quartet could have been assembled, with three of the four usually based overseas, but combined they make a striking group. The vocals never falter, and they have a consistent swagger when deploying Destiny Anderson's simple but well-suited choreography.
The rest of the ensemble is equally on point, but the fast-moving book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice has little room anyone outside the Four Seasons. Standouts include Cassandra McCowan, another Kiwi theatre star forced home by Covid, as the gleeful turned scorned Mary Delgado, Frankie's first wife, and local theatre regular Andrew Grainger is clearly living his gangster fantasy with Gyp De Carlo.
The musical does its best to cover all the hits – unsurprising since Gaudio helped create it – but the story is rushed through as a result, the first half of act one passing by in a blur of hits. The main four bring an emotional gravity to their characters as they move from the streets of Jersey to struggling with fame, but the musical speeds through the years at such a pace it's hard to make that emotional connection.
But Jersey Boys< exists to celebrate the music of the Four Seasons, and it's clear from the crowd's reaction every time a big hit – whether it be Walk Like A Man or Can't Take My Eyes Off of You – started that that's what they were there for as well. While we'll have to wait and see if all audiences respond to the ongoing tour, Jersey Boys is yet more evidence that New Zealand has the talent to do musical theatre on this scale and succeed.
What: Jersey Boys
Where: Civic Theatre until May 17; Wellington from May 21