As a teenager I once gave a Rick Wakeman album to a girl I fancied. Rather pointedly, she walked over to the record player and put on something by Frankie Valli.
Lesson learned. Rick, for all your keyboard dexterity, your music is not the food of love – although with hindsight The Six Wives of Henry VIII was probably not the most tactful gift to a girl.
Evidently she wasn’t the only one who loved falsetto Frankie and his band. On opening night the Empire was packed with them, all grown up now and desperate to wave and stamp as they went on an exhilarating nostalgia trip.
This musical, a big West End hit, tells the story of the lads from New Jersey who, in between minor skirmishes with the law, managed to make it big in the music biz.
There’s a lot of stuff to get through. Although Frankie is the famous one, he was just a kid called Francis Castellucio when he was recruited into the band run by Tommy DeVito and also featuring lugubrious Nick Massi, who encouraged Frankie to sing.
And the band didn’t really take off until Bronx-born Bob Gaudio came along with a winning song or two.
The focus at the start of the show, with a book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, moves hither and thither. You have to keep your wits about you as short scene morphs into short scene with brief musical interludes.
Part of the show’s success lies in its reputation for slick changes and these were a little clunky on opening night. At one point a technical hitch brought the safety curtain down for a brief unscheduled intermission.
When Stephen Webb as Tommy picked up the action, ending his repeated last line with an ad libbed “again”, there was delighted applause.
The scripted problems are dealt with in a bit of a whirl – Tommy’s gambling debits, Nick’s obsessive fastidiousness, Bob’s desire to get out of the spotlight, Frankie’s domestic problems (a marriage break-up, the death of his daughter) and the involvement of the mob.
At times it seemed a little perfunctory although, as a lesson in the band’s history, it was interesting and there are some nice lines.
On the musical front, the show cannot be faulted. The four lads, with Matt Corner as Frankie, Lewis Griffiths as Nick and Sam Ferriday as Bob, matched vocal dexterity with well-drilled, 60s-style delivery, guitars thrust this way and that in unison.
But this is not a concert. We see the lads perform to us, to TV cameras at the side of the stage and once, in one of the best moments, to an unseen audience at the back of the stage, putting the real audience ‘behind the scenes’.
It is an appetiser and I bet when a lot of people who see the show get home, the first thing they do is put Sherry or Bye Bye Baby on whatever passes for a record player these days.