Fun Fact. Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story has been running for longer than the man himself was alive. This jukebox musical first graced the stage in 1989, and has recently embarked on a UK tour to celebrate its 30th anniversary. The multi award-winning show, which tells the story of musician and songwriter Buddy Holly and his meteoric rise to fame, has already been seen by over 22 million people worldwide. Including Ma Lee, but she happily accompanied me to this Press Night performance at the Alexandra Theatre.
In two hours of non-stop classic tunes, Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story takes us from January 1956 to February 1959. From Holly’s early days in Lubbock, Texas fronting a band with his friends to his final performance at the Backstage Surf Ballroom in Iowa. Just hours after the performance, the aeroplane carrying Holly and fellow musicians Ritchie Valens and J P Richardson (The Big Bopper) crashed. The three musicians died, along with the pilot, coining the famous phrase “The Day the Music Died”. Buddy Holly was 22 years old. He had enjoyed just 18 months of stardom before his tragic death.
Holly (real name Charles Hardin Holley) and his band, The Crickets, were told repeatedly by people in the industry that they could be huge in country music if they made their sound a little less “coloured” and a little more conventional. They refused to compromise, and Holly became a pioneering figure of rock and roll. He changed musical history, and was inspiration to scores of other young artists, including Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles.
Like many jukebox musicals, the storyline is left to a minimum, and it’s all about the music. Directed by Matt Salisbury, the show largely hinges around two concerts. In the first act, Holly and the Crickets produce an energetic performance to win over a sceptical audience in Harlem. The second act builds towards the ill-fated tour, the final performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, and its tragic climax.
The immensely talented cast is made up of actor-musicians, giving convincing performances whilst skilfully playing their own instruments live. This makes the show feel much more authentic feel as we watch the familiar songs develop.
Two actors alternate the physically demanding lead role and the role of The Cricket’s rhythm guitarist Niki Sullivan. On opening night, it was Birmingham-born A.J Jenks expertly stepping into the distinctive black-rimmed spectacles. His charismatic portrayal of Holly was excellent, and Jenks has captured the vocals and mannerisms to perfection. He’s backed by Joe Butcher as Joe B Mauldin, and Josh Haberfield as Jerry Allison, as well as “alternate Buddy” Christopher Weeks as Sullivan.
It’s a small cast, with actors such as Harry Boyd taking on multiple roles. Joshua Barton plays an exuberent Big Bopper, and Ben Pryer comically thrusts his pelvis enthusiastically through his rendition of La Bamba as Richie Valens. Special mentions to the amazingly talented Rhiannon Hopkins as Vi Petty, who skips seamlessly from saxophone to piano during the final numbers. She also belts out the most tuneless rendition of “Star Spangled Banner” that I’ve ever heard.
If the songs are well paced in the first act, they are jam-packed into the second act. The live band takes centre stage, and it becomes more of a Buddy Holly tribute concert than musical theatre. There’s a lot of unnecessary build-up to the final performance, time which could have been spent better on exploring Holly’s relationship with Maria Elena (Hannah Price) and the financial decisions which led to him going on that ill-fated tour. This doesn’t seem to bother most of the opening night audience though, who are loud, appreciative and not shy to take to their feet.
The second act ends with the poignant radio announcement of the plane crash, and Holly’s sad and untimely demise. A single spotlight shines on a guitar. But Holly quickly returns for an energetic encore and final curtain call. After all, this is a celebration of Buddy Holly’s life, and the legacy he created.
Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story is full of 1950’s nostalgia, harking back to more innocent times. You don’t need to be a rock n roll fan to know the songs. That’ll Be The Day. Peggy Sue. True Love Ways. Rave On. La Bamba. Chantilly Lace. All familiar tunes that you’ll find yourself humming for days. It’s a fun way to spend an evening, and what the second half lacked in storyline, it made up for with a great soundtrack.
Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story plays the Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham until Saturday 7th March. You can buy your tickets online here, or contact the Box Office on 0844 871 3011.
*We were provided with press tickets in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own*
All press photos by Rebecca Need-Menear.