IT feels like Buddy, the forerunner to so many jukebox musicals, is always playing the Grand Opera House. Not so! Once there was a 12-year gap, and this week’s run is the first since 2017.
What is true, nevertheless, is that it deserves to keep coming back with its sad but joyous celebration of the geeky, bespectacled boy in a hurry, the revolutionary rock’n’roll rebel from Bible-belt, country-fixated Lubbock, Texas.
As heard in concert at York Barbican last autumn, Don McLean’s letter to the heart of American culture, American Pie, is cryptic in its lyrics. Except for its clarity in recalling “the day the music died” as McLean shivered with every paper he delivered that February 1959 morning after Holly and fellow singers J P Richardson (aka The Big Bopper) and Ritchie Valens had perished in a plane crash in the Iowa snow.
“Something touched me deep inside,” sang McLean in his eulogy, and Alan Janes’s musical has carried that torch through 27 actors playing Buddy, 414 pairs of glasses and 3,326 pairs of trousers – those figures no doubt still rising – since its August 1989 debut at the Plymouth Theatre Royal.
So many short, sharp songs from a brief but brilliant life cut short still rave on, never to fade away, as Janes crams in Holly hit after Holly hit, and plenty more besides with long concert sequences at the climax to both halves.
Indeed, unless your reviewer’s memory is playing tricks, there seems to be less detail of the story these days (in particular about the split from Buddy’s increasingly truculent band The Crickets and old-school producer Norman Petty as Holly (Christopher Weeks) swapped New Mexico for New York. This fracture is now mentioned only in passing by Thomas Mitchells’s narrator, Lubbock radio show host Hipockets Duncan, pretty much with a shrug of the shoulders).
That said, The Buddy Holly Story does answer McLean’s question, “Now do you believe in rock and roll?” with an emphatic ‘Yes’. But “can music save your mortal soul?” The inevitability of death would say ‘No’, but hey, it makes you feel good to be alive, whatever your age, how often you hear those Buddy songs.
Hipockets Duncan’s homespun narration begins at the very end ofthe story, before Holly’s 18-month rise and crash landing is charted chronologically. The teenage rebel with a cause in Buddy bursts through the gingham niceties of the opening number as he dupes a country radio station in deepest redneck 1956 Texas into letting him play on air, only to switch mid-song to that new interloper, rock’n’roll. Rip It Up is the song and rip it up is exactly what rule-breaker and innovator Buddy does.
A Nashville Decca producer may dismiss him with a “Can’t sing, can’t write” jibe, but Holly’s big specs appeal, silver tongue and golden arrow to the melody bullseye will triumph: no time to eat, but always feeding the beat as he writes restlessly and records relentlessly.
Directed by Matt Salisbury, rock’n’roll history in motion is a delight – the where, when and why it happened – as Petty’s wife, Vi (Stephanie Cremona) swaps tea-making for playing the celeste in a key contribution to Everyday; Buddy adapts the drum warm-up of The Crickets’ Jerry Allison (Josh Haberfield) for the opening to Peggy Sue, and Buddy refuses advice to remove his glasses, instead switching to thicker frames.
Such is the energy and joy, the love of life and wonder of love in Holly’s songs that this musical and its cast of multi-talented actor-musicians refuses to let the music die.
Cheeky humour and romance, innocence and defiance play their part, as Weeks’s Holly leads the show in all-action style, his singing and guitar playing top notch, while Joe Butcher’s constantly on the move stand-up bass player Joe B Mauldin and Haberfield’s drumming delight too. Look out too for Thomas Mitchells, taking on no fewer than six roles, count’em. That’s why his surname sounds plural!
Through the second half, the love-at-first-sight story of Buddy and record company receptionist Maria Elena (Daniella Agredo Piper), with her premonitions of Buddy’s fate, tugs at the heart strings like a Buddy Holly ballad.
Both concerts are choreographed superbly by Miguel Angel, whipping up the audience to the max; first, the remarkable night when the mistakenly booked Crickets found themselves playing at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York.
Then, the fateful last night of a badly organised tour at the Surf Ballroom, Clear Lake, Iowa, as Christopher Chandler’s Big Bopper and Miguel Angel’s hip-swivelling Ritchie Valens share the spotlight with Weeks’s inexhaustible Holly.
The tears will always flow at the sudden curtain fall to announce Holly’s passing, but every performance is a resurrection, a chance to shout Hollylujah.
Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story, Grand Opera House, York, 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: atgtickets.com/york.