Buddy Musical Productions
Manchester Opera House
April 20-22, 2023; 2hrs
(also touring widely. See here for details)
Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story is back on another extensive UK tour. What is it that brings audiences back again and again to this particular jukebox musical – seen by 22 million people since opening in London in 1989?
A large part of the appeal is the music: well-known songs, simple, youthful lyrics sung in harmony, and propelled by driving and interesting rhythms; while the sadder songs catch a transient mournfulness. These particular songs, fromThat’ll Be The Day, Peggy Sue, Oh Boy and Everyday to Rave On, are better known than most people realise; they were the ground floor of the high-rise layers of popular music across subsequent decades.
The songs dominate the show, which is essentially a record of two important performances in Holly’s very short career. The first act ends with a short representation of Buddy Holly and The Crickets booking as the first white band to play Harlem’s famous Apollo theatre, a thriving home for black artists and audiences. The second act recreates Holly’s last appearance – now without The Crickets – alongside Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. All three were killed when their plane crashed in a storm.
Musical performances are excellent throughout. AJ Jenks (last night) and Christopher Weeks take the Holly role at alternate performances. Buddy is performed with verve: the singing, playing, movement and acting are convincing and, most impressively, Buddy himself is portrayed as a character who grows in confidence, onstage and off, as his success grows. Miguel Angel as Ritchie Valens and Christopher Chandler as JP Richardson "The Big Bopper" perform their main numbers – La Bamba and Chantilly Lace – with considerable energy, and an ensemble performance of Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode is wildly exciting, encouraging the audience to its feet, while Laura Dene Perryman and Daniella Agredo Piper dial up the soul and sexuality with a terrific version of Shout, the Isley Brothers composition better known here in Lulu's version, giving a clear picture of the challenging standards expected at the Apollo.
Buddy Holly’s musical output is strong and and sizeable, particularly given his tragic death at 22. That the writer recognises that the show is stronger with the addition of other voices is a major strength.
The show is undoubtedly a jukebox musical and the story of the people and the music, while both a cause and reflection of climatic changes in our lives, is treated superficially. We don’t really know why Buddy rejected the country music style expected of him, nor are relations between the sexes, the racial divide, or the power of commerce in the industry explored in any depth. To do so would require a different vehicle, with far fewer songs. The show does what it says on the tin, and more.
Pleasingly, this production manages the the "singing along" expectations well, giving opportunities to do so while making clear the boundaries of those opportunities – so the audience is able to relax and enjoy the show and its excellent performances.
A joyous night at the jukebox.