Theatre review: Buddy – The Buddy Holly story
Jenny Booth reviews the musical about Buddy Holly on its 30th anniversary tour
The tribute musical Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story was a smash hit in the 1990s but on its 30th anniversary tour is starting to creak with age.
The UK tour reached Croydon’s Fairfield Halls this week, and on a cold Monday night in November attracted a respectably-sized audience of Buddy Holly fans.
The show does what it is supposed to do as a nostalgia musical and rolls out a procession of hits, unfortunately at the expense of the plot. Both halves of the musical have long sections which are essentially concerts. Most of Act 2 is a re-creation of Holly’s last gig, at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 3 1959 – the night he died in a plane crash at the tragically young age of 22.
So detailed, indeed, is that re-creation that the audience has to sit through 30 minutes of the compere trying repeatedly to get a reaction from the audience, a bad rendition of the Star-spangled Banner, a tedious a capella group and a supporting act by the Big Bopper, before Holly finally takes to the stage.
It seems perverse to spend so much time on this not very interesting prelude to the main event, when the show could have been looking at the fascinating and racy stuff in Holly’s real life – the way he had to hide his marriage to avoid upsetting his fans, for example, or the vicious rows over money with his manager Norman Petty which provided the real reason Holly was forced to tour in the dead of winter in a bus with broken heating, and ended up fatefully stepping onto the hired plane.
But the real trouble with the script is how often it relies on stereotyping. You could perhaps get away with it in 1989, but in 2019 there were moments when the show was uncomfortable to watch – particularly the scene in the Apollo Theatre in Harlem which has been written to show Holly and his all-white band winning over a racist black audience. Similarly, there are no female roles to speak of, just perfunctory blank spaces to provide worship and adoration of the hero. Holly’s mother is a nagging voice on the phone reminding him to eat properly, and disapproving of him marrying a Hispanic. When Petty’s wife (a pianist) enters the recording studio, Holly drawls: “No, Vi, we don’t need any coffee.” I wasn’t laughing.
Musically, AJ Jenks as Buddy proved he has the voice and the moves to bring the house down. The main question for me was why he waited to the end of the second half to do it, and appeared tame and reserved in the first half.
The production appeared to be suffering from too small a budget, with sketchy sets and a minimal number of people on stage trying to create a party vibe. The show only really took off in the final scene, when Holly duets “Johnny Be Good” with Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. These two were to die alongside him in the plane crash that night, and that tragic irony gives the final numbers some bite. Valens was only 17.
The Holly fans in the audience were excited enough by the end to get up from their seats and do a little rocking and rolling, and give the cast a standing ovation. See this show if you love the music.