By BRUCE DENNILL
Bye Bye Baby / Musical director: Marc Ryzer / The Mandela, Joburg Theatre, Braamfontein
Frankie Valli & The 4 Seasons are a more or less impossible act to follow. There’s Valli’s voice, which is unique – by definition, a facet you cannot market your way around. And there’s the 100 million record sales; world class business by anyone’s standards. And then there’s Jersey Boys, a compelling docu-drama with a soundtrack micro-managed by the man who wrote it – Bob Gaudio – and therefore performed at a level that he’s happy with.
It follows that any show paying tribute to such an outfit has to either operate at the above level or have a fresh angle that allows audiences to get their musical fix off the hits – Who Loves You, Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like A Man, My Eyes Adored You, Working My Way Back, December ’63, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and the other affiliated tunes (Grease, a solo hit for Valli; The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine, a hit for the Walker Brothers, but written by Gaudio; and Silence Is Golden, a 4 Seasons B-side that The Tremeloes took to the top of the UK charts) – while not being distracted by the story, or lack thereof, tying them together.
Bye Bye Baby is a well-intentioned show, with plenty of obvious passion for its subject, but it doesn’t meet either of the above criteria. A straight tribute show – playing the songs back-to-back and synching the dance moves – would be fine in a context where the fascinating history of the protagonists was unknown or a bit vague. But that is not the case here, and skipping over the details of who left the band when and who went to prison for what leaves the crowd short-changed before the performance details are even taken into account. To be fair, though, nail the songs and everything will be fine. Not top-notch, but fine.
On opening night, however, the cast of Bye Bye Baby did not nail the songs. Jamie Ledwith as Frankie gave it his best shot, both vocally – he doesn’t quite have either end of Valli’s range, but then, who does? – and in energy terms, dragging his colleagues up to the mark (in the second half of the show, particularly). However, the quality of the singing voices is not the heart of the issue. The problem is that, on opening night, the show was clearly under-rehearsed. The quartet never seemed certain as to where to come in at the beginning of each tune, and there were was more clear self-doubt in much of the inter-song patter, with a notably awkward moment when Mitchell Rutter as Gaudio repeated a whole segment (including a song introduction) from the first half in Act II.
Add to that numerous flat notes, follow spots that didn’t follow (leaving singers to wander off into dark reaches of the stage, with only their disembodied voices to confirm their continued presence), choreographic hiccoughs and a sound mix that was neither able to highlight the Valli notes – the standout aspect of the original band’s harmonies – nor immerse the audience in volume terms (too often, musical stage shows are too loud; this was not loud enough) and you have a show that simply doesn’t deliver in terms of making going to the theatre an aspirational experience. A string of laughable typos in the programme only underlined that this is not as show that a top theatre should be putting on its main stage.
Mitigating factors? The show only arrived at the venue a little more than a day ahead of curtain up, so setting up would have been somewhat rushed, and the Johannesburg altitude very likely impacts singers working as hard as this cast. Those points make the quality of the opening night performance a little easier to understand (and, if remedied, they’d make for a much more enjoyable audience experience). But they don’t excuse the lack of planning that led to a stuttering, befuddled introduction to Bye Bye Baby as a production.