Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★

Originally reviewed for The Reviews Hub:

Alan Janes’ Buddy, the granddaddy of jukebox biography musicals, opened in October 1989. Which means that, at the spritely age of 27, this musical is now five years older than its protagonist was at his death in 1959.

And truth be told, that age is beginning to show, particularly at the top of the first act. Janes’ book prefers to treat the piece as a play, with most of Holly’s key tunes presented in concert form at the end of each act. Given that Holly’s chart career barely lasted two years before his death, this is not an unreasonable choice: however, it results in several scenes of set-up, exposition and plot progression that struggle to elicit much interest. At times, this touring production feels as if its cast are working so hard to perfect their Texan accents that their ability to land the script’s occasional joke has been set aside.

In the central role of Buddy, Alex Fobbester – in a role he shares with Glen Joseph on other dates in the tour – struggles when not singing to portray the impetuous youth who is emerging from his teenage years and struggling to play rock and roll in a town, and then a record label, which reveres country music. Glimpses of his performance skill with his fellow Crickets (Joe Butcher and Josh Haberfield) whet the appetite somewhat but are sparsely interspersed among too many scenes of ultradry script.

The occasional number performed in full – most especially the celeste-infused Everyday – provide some respite from the scenes of recording studio discussions and contractual negotiations.

Where the show kicks into high gear is the climax of Act I, as the Crickets prepare to play the legendary Apollo theatre in New York’s Harlem borough. As the Isley Brothers-inspired show hosts, Jordan Cunningham and Miguel Angel provide a boost that carries the show to the interval and beyond.

The second act covers the final year of Holly’s life, from his whirlwind romance and marriage to record company secretary Maria Elena to his split from the Crickets and a money-making tour with J. P. Richardson (aka “the Big Bopper”) and Richie Valens. Janes’ script wisely rockets through the corporate shenanigans in order to set up the relationship between the three performers, prior to what would turn out to be their final performances.

And it is with the recreation of the performance at Clear Lake, Iowa – after which Holly, Richardson, Valens and pilot Roger Peterson died in an airplane crash – that the memories of the play’s flaws fade, in the celebration of music and performers whose legacy has lived on in the decades since. Jordan Cunningham’s Valens is a firecracker, while Fobbester emerges as the full Buddy Holly performer at last.

While dance is not a huge part of Buddy‘s make up, performer Miguel Angel’s dual role as tour choreographer is felt both in the Apollo and Clear Lake segments. It helps solidify the good feelings engendered by the show’s closing concert, ensuring that for all its flaws its audience leaves the theatre feeling fulfilled.