Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is a musical based on the whirlwind success of Buddy Holly and The Crickets, starting with their 1957 discovery and ending with Buddy’s devastatingly early death alongside fellow musicians Richie Valens and The Big Bopper J.P. Richardson. It originally opened in 1989 and has been performed all around the world since, earning a reputation as ‘the world’s most successful rock and roll musical’. This week the show is based in Canterbury for five days, as part of its 2023 UK tour. I was fortunate enough to be invited to review the production on its opening night and I immediately said yes, looking forward to hearing his iconic sound live on stage at The Marlowe Theatre and learning more about the rock and roll icon.
The Crickets were world famous in the late 1950s and the show is largely aimed at people who grew up with their music and are fans of rock and roll. I was born just shy of 40 years after they hit the airwaves, but I have always known about Buddy Holly, his iconic glasses and been familiar with The Crickets’ original songs. Not wanting to pass up the opportunity to review a jukebox musical set in a different time period, I was keen to provide a perspective from someone who has not grown up with the musical legends. I was also interested to learn more about the band that inspired The Beatles and other artists of the past 60-70 years.
At two and a half hours in length with a short interval, the first act follows The Crickets’ journey onto the radio, their experiences in the recording studio and triumphant performance at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. The second act covers Holly’s first romantic encounter with Maria Elena, separation from The Crickets and his final concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. Made up of over 20 musical numbers from the rock and roll era, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is a live theatre tribute to the young musician with insights into the man behind the music.
For such a music focused show, the cast are unsurprisingly all multi-talented actor musicians. From The Crickets band to Richie Valens (Miguel Angel) and The Big Bopper (Christopher Chandler), audiences are treated to various instruments throughout the performance, ranging from a cappella vocals to guitar riffs, jazz melodies and percussion sounds. Christopher Weeks leads the musicians with Holly’s spirited stage presence and the company makes orchestration a visual art form with their carefully choreographed key playing. In addition, the recording studio scenes are absolutely fascinating, particularly the recording of ‘Everyday’ and the experimentation with different musical instruments. It showcases the musicians endless creativity.
Musicality aside, outside of the concert segments there isn’t much opportunity for us to hear the individual stories of the different characters. There is limited dialogue and it feels as if spoken word takes a backseat. In the second act this isn’t helped by the microphones being low during the talking sections, but perfectly clear in the concert section. With all of the fantastic jukebox musicals that have visited the Marlowe previously, it just feels that this one poured all of its energy both technically and creatively into the music, leaving the storytelling behind.
Buddy Holly’s life as a musical, does it work?
Reflecting on the show, I feel extremely conflicted because the musicians put everything into the production and showcase exceptional talent. If I were rating the performance on music alone, it would be a solid 4 stars, but with it being titled Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, it lacks content and narrative. I was looking forward to learning about his upbringing, rise to fame, the tragic plane crash and The Crickets’ legacy on modern day music. Instead it is more like a concert, focusing on Holly’s most notable performances at the New York and Iowa venues.
There is a moment in the second act where several songs are played in sequence and as brilliant as they are, I was left wishing that the production would focus more on Holly as a person. I realise this thought process is largely down to my lack of knowledge about The Crickets, but with newer jukebox musicals you learn so much about the artist or band through the story, that you leave the theatre with a better understanding of the person. This musical doesn’t follow the same approach, it is more of a live music recital than a piece of theatre. Although if you’re looking for a night out at the theatre filled with Buddy Holly and The Crickets’ music, then you will definitely enjoy the concert format.
With a somewhat misleading title in The Buddy Holly Story, Alan Janes’ decision to focus on Buddy’s 18 months of success and not more of his life makes this a three star production for me. Despite this, the rock and roll sound is infectious and you can’t help but smile at the recreation of the vocal tones that made Holly famous. Christopher Weeks is a natural leader in his role as Buddy Holly. Fans of the late musician will enjoy the lively atmosphere and being able to be a part of Holly’s legacy. Last minute tickets can be purchased from the theatre’s website, with best availability during the evenings.
Thanks for reading my blog today.
Love Kat xxxx
*Our tickets and programme for Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story were gifted in exchange for a review of the production.