By: Sam Tucker, TRP Reviewer
As I approached the theatre this evening, I was excited to learn the story of the rock and roll star Buddy Holly. I’d heard of him, yes, could recognise him, sure, but not necessarily name any of his songs. I was assured that I’d recognise them when I heard them, and I was looking forward to the education. The banner that adorns TRP claims that I won’t forget this show and I was excited to see what would be so memorable. The show has been running for over 30 years and that was already a good sign for me!
What transpired was a really fun, feel-good show that must be the dream for actor-musicians to be part of. There was a party atmosphere throughout the show and I can see why fans of rock and roll were thrilled to see this back in town. There were even some early standing ovations and some squeals of delight at certain songs. Even the slight sing-a-longs were sweet, rather than irritating, and might be the reason the volume was so high on the musical numbers!
The show opens in a gentle way with some country singers, making me question what I thought I knew about Buddy Holly’s music, but we are very soon introduced to the stars of the show – Buddy Holly and the Crickets. I love to see live music on stage and was trying to watch everyone and take it all in. I’m always in awe of the stamina of drummers and Josh Haberfield as Jerry Allison was excellent throughout.
We had the pleasure of AJ Jenks as Buddy Holly in our performance, but the role is shared with Christopher Weeks and both either play Buddy or Nikki Sullivan, the rhythm guitarist in the band. Interestingly, in some reviews of the time, Sullivan was sometimes referred to as “the other guy in glasses” by critics due to his slight resemblance to Buddy Holly in stature and spectacles. (I confess to doing a fair bit of Buddy Holly research after this show, trying to see the real lives behind the story and fill in any gaps, but I’ll try and keep my Buddy Holly facts to a minimum here!)
Anyway, perhaps this leads itself to a sharing of these roles. AJ Jenks portrayed a calmly passionate, polite musician who was prepared to do things differently and keep going until his music was heard. Musically he, and all of The Crickets, were wonderful to listen to and the joy was palpable in the room. My eyes were constantly drawn to the theatrics of Joe Butcher as bassist Joe B Mauldin – lifting the double bass above his head to play and standing on it are two of my highlights! Whenever the band were on stage we knew we were in for a treat!
The first half of the show sets the scene and what follows is a gentle tale of four clean-cut musicians, eager to make it big, resilient to the setbacks and destined to finally make it and change the face of music for good. The first act closes with Buddy Holly and the Crickets becoming the first white group to play at The Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. What transpires on stage is a joyful moment of courage to make change happen and acceptance and the ability of music to transcend difference and connect people. This is weaved with fantastic performances and humour from Miguel Angel, Laura-Dene Perryman and Samuelle Durojaiye as fellow Apollo performers. We certainly headed into the interval in party mode!
The second half doesn’t disappoint as that party mode keeps on growing! We are treated to electric performances by Christopher Chandler as The Big Bopper and Miguel Angel as Ritchie Valens. Here you could imagine you were at the actual Clearlake Concert, complete with intermission entertainment. This lets another of the stars of the show really shine! Our narrator, Thomas Mitchells, excels in his many guises throughout the show, opening and closing as Hipockets Duncan and playing various producers, managers, DJs and MCs to carry the story along. Here he stands in front of the closed curtains in a full spotlight and takes on the role of MC. He interacts with the audience (and Margaret and Colin played along nicely) with Mitchells’ humour and quick responses keeping the joy in the auditorium high. However, we are also aware that this is the infamous Clear Lake Concert, that was tragically to be the final performance of Buddy Holly and his friends The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens. (Ok, so I wasn’t completely aware, but the narrative helped me to build the picture, especially when Valens “won” his seat on the plane). This meant that I was simultaneously loving the performances whilst processing the reality that these awesome rock and roll legends were to tragically die within hours of this gig.
The gig ends and we are suddenly plunged into darkness. When the blackout lifted to show only Buddy Holly’s guitar in a solo spotlight, I realised that the banner on the theatre was right. I don’t think I will ever forget this moment and this show. What a poignant way to tell someone this story for the first time or to commemorate a well loved icon.
After Hipockets Duncan delivers the news of his friend’s death in a voice over, the blackout lifts to a very fitting tribute to the musicians lost that day, with a party onstage of absolutely joyous memories of their music. The news of the ages of Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens when they died – 22 and 17 – was still ringing in my ears as the final songs played – an overwhelming sense of what else could have been. In true celebration of a rock and roll icon though, we partied to celebrate the music that redefined just how music could be made.
Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story is celebrating nearly 35 years and it’s very easy to see why! The show opened in 1989 and has delighted audiences all over the world. Over 22 million people have bobbed and jived along to the rock and roll classics. Buddy Holly fans come to see the music they love played live and, by the atmosphere in The Lyric tonight, the fans are still going strong. New fans are made here too and I have certainly been watching old clips of Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, keen to see the real-life legends that this fantastic show celebrates. It’s no wonder that it’s “The World’s Most Successful Rock & Roll Musical!”
Grab a ticket and join the party!