Gillian Cumming

Six months before Jersey Boys first opened in Australia in 2009 the show’s American producers flew four young Aussies to Las Vegas to meet Frankie Valli. Idolised for his soaring falsetto as the frontman of 1960s pop music sensation The Four Seasons, Valli was the man who would help inspire this quartet of performers.

Among them was Ipswich lad Glaston Toft, who’d won the role of Four Seasons bass guitarist and bass vocalist Nick Massi. He has performed the role of Massi almost 2000 times since the original Jersey Boys first hit Australian stages in July 2009.

“They’re all legends – Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio and Nick,” Toft says. “I spent a fair bit of time with Frankie.

“They were very particular about casting and I was lucky that they saw something in me as Nick Massi, and vocally as well. Nick sings a lot of the bass harmonies and I often say that Frankie Valli sounds so good and so high because I’m there singing the low notes,” he quips.

Fast-forward to next month when Toft, 40, again dons the iconic red jacket as Massi, this time in a reimagined concert version of the musical, Jersey Boys, The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons, brought to the QPAC Concert Hall from February 8 by Brisbane’s Prospero Arts.

“I was 26 when I started playing Nick,” Toft says. “He was damaged and complicated. He left his kids when they were young yet was still involved with them. Not all of them knew he was their dad. They called him Uncle Nick. There is a part in the show where I confess that. It didn’t resonate with me until I had children. It gave me a different understanding.

“When the band first became big, Nick wasn’t young. Frankie and Bob were in their teens, while Tommy and Nick were in their mid-30s. Tommy and Nick had already lived a lot, had been struggling artists, so success felt different.”

The story of four guys from New Jersey who had to choose between the navy, crime or music to claw their way out, Jersey Boys is a raw-yet-real look into the world of one of the biggest pop groups in history. Fifteen years after first becoming a Jersey Boy, Toft continues to feel connected to Massi.

“I wouldn’t have done 2000 shows and not have a soft spot for Jersey Boys and the role,” he says. “It’s been a privilege and a joy. When Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman wrote the show, they spoke to Frankie, Bob and Tommy, but Nick had already died (in 2000). They found it hard to pin down who Nick was, so they wrote this very enigmatic character. But people who see the show say, ‘that’s exactly who Nick was’. He made bizarre choices.

“In actuality, Nick was a struggling musician his whole life. The Four Seasons became huge over two to three years. Then as soon as they did make it, he was like, ‘yep, I’m done, see you later’.”

When The Four Seasons ran into trouble, which happened often, Massi would lament how he should have started his own band. He finally left the group in 1965, eventually shifting his focus to painting.

As Massi, Toft delivers many of the show’s comic high points, including his dummy-spit about the horrors of sharing hotel rooms with Tommy DeVito, whose “crimes” included leaving bath towels in a soggy heap.

Toft reflects on his time with Gaudio, who visited the original production rehearsals in Sydney in 2009:

“Bob realised the show was beyond himself,” Toft says. “He was more interested in sound and sat at the sound desk. He saw the show as a theatre piece about their life. Bob was a very generous man.”

This writer would not disagree, having caught up with Gaudio – The Four Seasons  wonderkid composer, keyboard player and vocalist – also in Sydney in 2009 before the show’s Australian premier.

‘‘Truth be known, and Frankie would tell you the same thing, we both sat down and said, ‘if this is going to be our story, not us producing a musical about our music, it has to be warts and all’,’’ Gaudio told me. ‘‘Instead of meddling (with it), whitewashing it or doing anything that would possibly take away any grit about the reality of what our lives were, we left it like it was.”

The result is a heartfelt, heart-breaking and, ultimately, heart-warming account of a cathartic time in music, a mesmerising time in history and a fascinating foursome who gave The Beatles a run for their money.

Still, the decision to tell the true story – the fights, the failures and the fall-out – meant for Gaudio it could sometimes be a bit tricky to watch. Hence, sticking with the sound desk in Sydney, maybe, as Toft recalls.

“It is hard not to be moved by some of the memories,’’ Gaudio said. ‘‘Particularly the part about Frankie’s daughter Francine.’’ (Francine, also a singer, died in 1980 from a drug overdose.)

Jersey Boys will be the third production in the Prospero Arts and QPAC’s In Concert Series, following The Wizard of Oz – In Concert and Singin’ in the Rain – In Concert.

Directed by Martin Croft with choreography by Dan Venz and musical supervision by David Young, Jersey Boys is supported by an 11-piece band led by musical director and conductor James Dobinson.

Prospero Arts director Hayley Johnson says she is thrilled to bring Jersey Boys to the Concert Hall stage.

“We were keen for our next production to be a jukebox musical – with a great and inspiring story – full of iconic songs,” she says. “Jersey Boys is from that special era in pop music that paved the way for so many of the songs and artists that have made an unprecedented mark in the history of popular music.

“Our reimagined semi-staged production really puts the spotlight on the story, the choreography and of course the hit songs played by a live orchestra. We are thrilled with our lead cast who are all very familiar with Jersey Boys’ roles in the professional arena. Brisbane audiences are in for the real deal – Jersey Boys brought to you by the best in the biz.”

The cast includes Josh Mulheran as Frankie Valli, Connor Crawford as Tommy DeVito, Jack Saunders as Bob Gaudio, Emma Wilby as Francine and Toft as Nick Massi.

Fans of The Four Seasons can expect to hear all the group’s greatest hits including Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and December 1963 (Oh, What a Night).

Winner of four Tony Awards, and an Olivier and Helpmann award for best musical, Jersey Boys remains one of the longest-running shows on Broadway.

For Toft, he couldn’t be happier to slip back into character as Massi and is looking forward to this production’s semi-staged concert version, which will mean more focus on the music.

“One of the great things about the show is that every character gets their chance to narrate their version of the story,” he says. “The show starts with Tommy saying the band wouldn’t have been successful without him, then Bob says, well, actually, not without me. Then Frankie says it wouldn’t have been successful without him because he sang the high stuff.

“Then Nick says only, ‘this is what happened’. He’s the only one who doesn’t make it all about him. He’s saying, this is how I saw it.

“Still, at its essence, Jersey Boys is about four guys under a street lamp singing some songs. The music is timeless.”

Jersey Boys, The Story of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons plays the QPAC Concert Hall, February 8-11,

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