The tragically short life of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Buddy Holly is commemorated in Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, a show that has been doing the rounds for twenty-five years. Its current stop is at the Churchill Theatre in Bromley.
Buddy features performances of most of his beloved songs (including That’ll Be The Day, Peggy Sue, Heartbeat and Everyday) that are sure to delight aficionados. The story starts with Texas boy Holly already looking for a career in the industry, but with various management figures wanting to push him, and his band The Crickets, down the path of country music. Holly, who invented geek chic fifty years before it eventually caught on, cuts an unlikely figure in rock ‘n’ roll, and faces an uphill struggle for credibility.
Musical theatre rock tributes generally follow one of two paths: those like Let It Be are non-stop renditions of classic songs with no narrative; others like Soul Sister offer a poignant story (in that case about Ike and Tina Turner) alongside the hits. Buddy falls between stools. The songs are fantastic but the story is thin and the characterisations surface deep.
It has to be said that Glen Joseph (who shares the role of Holly for the tour with Roger Rowley) is magnificent in the lead role and a captivating presence on stage. He throws himself into the part with complete commitment and conviction, and his vocals skilfully evoke Holly’s. However, he’s the only real personality in the show. That’s not to disrespect the other performers, but the rest of the characters are merely ciphers. As for the story, there are fleeting stabs at raising issues such as racial prejudice in pre-civil rights movement-era America, but such themes are neither sustained nor integral.
After following the whirlwind romance of Holly and Maria Elena (Vivienne Smith), at the end of which Holly bids farewell to his pregnant wife to go and tour, the story falls catastrophically apart. Fatally, Holly is off-stage for at least twenty minutes, during which time the curtain comes down and there’s a prolonged digression into audience interaction. To say the show misses Glen Joseph is an understatement, and there’s simply no excuse for sidelining the main character for so long. If killing the pace stone dead in this way raises expectations for an extravagant set change, then the curtain rising to the same backdrop but with a few frilly curtains erected proves something of a disappointment. The design is bland and uninspiring throughout, utilising clunky flats and sliding doors.
After the redress, do we really need long moments in the spotlight for Holly’s fellow plane-crash victims The Big Bopper (Jason Blackwater) and Ritchie Valens (Will Pearce)? Actually, the latter is a bad example, since the handsome Will Pearce cuts a magnificent figure in his spandex Ritchie Valens costume; and his hip-shaking, bum-wiggling routine whilst singing La Bamba proved a highlight of the show.
Strangely, though, we never see Maria Elena again. The real story is that Holly’s grief-stricken widow miscarried a few weeks after his death. Here, there’s virtually no reaction even to Holly’s death, which is briefly mentioned but then quickly glossed over in favour of an upbeat ending. Well, fair enough: but it makes for a shallow story. With a running time of almost three hours, the narrative drive and the pacing are very uneven. It’s just as well the music routines are great.
Ultimately, if you like feel-good musical theatre with songs to clap and tap along to, you’ll love Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story. If you look for a well-structured story populated with nuanced characters, this show will fall short of expectations. Musical theatre has moved on in the quarter of a century since the show debuted, and it may be time to tinker with the design and the script.