Theatre reviews: Jersey Boys | Tam O'Shanter – Tales & Whisky

Boasting unforgettable performances, terrific choreography and bold, powerful design, the latest touring production of Jersey Boys is a show with barely a dull moment, writes Joyce McMillan

Jersey Boys, Playhouse, Edinburgh ****

Tam O’Shanter – Tales & Whisky, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Somewhere near the beginning of the Four Seasons tribute show Jersey Boys, Tommy DeVito, the band’s original leader (played with tremendous flair by Dalton Wood) steps up to explain to us the three ways in which a working-class Italian-American kid might escape from small-town industrial New Jersey, where the band members were born.

Jersey Boys PIC: Birgit + Ralf BrinkhoffJersey Boys PIC: Birgit + Ralf Brinkhoff
Jersey Boys PIC: Birgit + Ralf Brinkhoff
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You could join the army, he says, or join the mob and become a gangster, or become a star; and it’s that theme of escape from the “old neighbourhood”, and the ties that still bind the band members to it, that runs through every scene of Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s smash-hit 2004 juke box musical. Itself divided into “Four Seasons” – charting the spring, summer, autumn and winter of the band’s meteoric career – Jersey Boys is one of the most enduringly successful tribute shows ever made; and it owes its UK success at least as much to the strength of that central theme as to the popularity of the band itself, never as big on this side of the Atlantic as it was in the USA.

The songs, though, remain classic examples of fun, uplifting bubblegum pop, from the band’s first hit Sherry, through to later classics including Oh What A Night and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You; and director Des McAnuff’s production uses them with terrific energy to chart the band’s story, from the moment of its formation in 1960. The pattern of the drama is in some ways predictable, as wide boy Tommy plunges the band into terrifying debt, and both Tommy and dependable baritone Nick Massi find themselves ever more eclipsed by the dazzlingly talented singer-songwriter partnership of the band’s famous falsetto lead singer Frankie Valli, and composer Bob Gaudio.

Yet the power of this primal story of working class boys made good, and of the music itself, ensures a show with barely a dull moment, over two and a half highly-charged hours. The choreography is terrific, the design bold and powerful, and at the performance I saw, George Salmon stepped up to give an unforgettable understudy performance as Frankie Valli. And if the sound balance at the Playhouse is sometimes a little rough, the show nonetheless makes a fine job of capturing both the drama of the Four Seasons’ story; and the magic of the moment when they first come together round a piano, lift their voices, and create “that” sound.

Robert Burns was also a working class boy made good, in his day; yet like many stage celebrations of Burns, young Edinburgh company Stolen Elephant’s show Tam O’Shanter – Tales And Whisky at first seems a little shy of wholeheartedly embracing the poetry itself. In the first half of this two-hour show, it messes around telling the kinds of stories from Scottish folklore that Burns might have heard as a child, promising whisky that never appears, and setting up a vague dramatic framework for a fairly unusual Burns Night celebration.

Superb musicians Douglas MacQueen Hunter (on vocals and guitar) and Duggi Caird (on accordion) keep up a steady pulse of Burns-related songs between stories, though; and in the second half, the show takes flight, as actress and storyteller Shian Denovan delivers a tremendous, pitch-perfect performance of Tam O’Shanter, with subtle musical accompaniment. In the end, with Burns, all you need is the words, the music, and a group of gifted performers, to create real magic; and Stolen Elephant finally deliver all three in fine style – even if some whisky would have been good, too.

Jersey Boys at the Playhouse, Edinburgh, until 4 February, and at His Majesty’s Theatre, Aberdeen, 7-11 February. Tam O’Shanter, run completed.