REVIEW: Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story, Grand Opera House, York, until Saturday ****

Christopher Weeks’s Buddy Holly in Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story

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:

All in a Weeks’ work in York as Christopher plays Buddy Holly at Grand Opera House

Oh Boy! Christopher Weeks as Buddy Holly in Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story, on tour at Grand Opera House, York

CHRISTOPHER Weeks will be in York all week, playing the lead role as Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story returns to its regular nesting place of the Grand Opera House from Tuesday for the first time since 2017.

After the 30th anniversary travels were stalled by Covid, writer-producer Alan Janes’s musical is back on the road at last, adding to the record-breaking 4,668 performances over 580 weeks on tour in Britain and Ireland (alongside 5,822 performances over 728 weeks in London’s West End since 1989).

Buddy tells the “day the music died” story of how bespectacled Buddy Holly, from Lubbock, Texas, rose from southern rockabilly beginnings to international stardom in only 18 months before his untimely death in a snow-shrouded plane crash at the age of only 22 after playing the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Christopher, a 33-year-old southerner with northern connections, has been a Buddy fan since childhood days. “The show has been around for more than 30 years, and I first saw it in High Wycombe when I was seven or eight,” he recalls.

“I grew up with the show soundtrack, before I knew Buddy Holly’s own versions, and  it’s always been on the list of shows I wanted to do, but I never thought I’d get to play Buddy as it’s top of the tree, a pipe dream, the biggest show of its kind around.”

Nevertheless, Christopher knew members of the previous Buddy cast of actor-musicians, having worked with Josh Haberfield, his “go-to drummer”, who played The Crickets’ Jerry Allison in the show, and Joe Butcher, Buddy’s double bassist Joe B Maudlin.

That affiliation provided his inroad. “I was in a group called The Runaround Kids, a four-piece with a flexible line-up [including Haberfield and Butcher, sharing drumming duties], and we played Buddy Holly and other rock’n’roll songs.

“I played piano and fronted the band on cruise ships and we did it all over the world, playing with headline acts like Chesney Hawkes and Gareth Gates. We once shared a cab back with Chesney!”

Haberfield and Butcher mentioned Weeks’s enthusiasm to play Buddy to director Matt Salisbury. “I then went through an audition process that was very vigorous,” says Christopher.

“That was in 2019, when they were casting for the 30th anniversary tour in 2019/2020. I got the part, and everything was rolling along nicely, six months or so into the tour, when we had the dreaded ‘We’ll keep you posted’ meeting and the pandemic lockdown soon followed.

“They were great with us, very upfront, and gave us some financial support, but it’s such a big show that the tour has only been back up and running for three weeks.

“You couldn’t have done it for the previous two years, as it just wasn’t possible, and then the venues had to play catch-up with all the shows that had been booked in.”

Rave on: Hannah Price, left, Harry Boyd, Christopher Weeks, Rhiannon Hopkins, Joshua Barton and Ben Pryer in a scene from Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story

Has resuming the tour after such a long hiatus been akin to climbing back on to a bicycle? “Well, I did as much work on it as I could at home. The songs never leave you, and because we’ve played them with all those different groups, The Crickets came together a few days before rehearsals resumed to refresh ourselves,” says Christopher.

“Once you get back in the rehearsal room, you start finding yourself instinctively back in the same positions on stage. It felt like a shadow was there from what I’d done before.”

Driven by the truncated arc of Holly’s story – the candle snuffed out so soon – as much as by such songs as That’ll Be The Day, Peggy Sue, Oh Boy, Everyday, Rave On, The Big Bopper’s Chantilly Lace and Ritchie Valens’s La Bamba, Buddy adds up to much more than the raft of jukebox musicals it inspired.

“In terms of drama, it’s a tragedy,” says Christopher. “Jukebox musicals have their place, but this is different. It’s a play with songs and it’s not rose-tinted, showing a lovely guy who nevertheless wanted to get things done his way and didn’t have time for any nonsense.

“There’s so much drama, and it’s a true telling of how the songs came about, rather than just singing because that’s what the emotion demands. They’re playing music because they’re musicians.

“It’s the rawness and simplicity of those songs that still appeal to people. Music has gone through so many turns and changes, like my father growing up listening to Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. He’d probably look back at rock’n’roll as simplistic, whereas I see it as simple but vibrant and thrilling.”

Christopher admires Holly for his “creativity, passion and drive, and unimaginable talent”. “He was in the business for only 18 months, and I do wonder if he somehow knew what was coming. He was always on the clock, always in the studio, always up at night writing, and his wife [Maria Elena] had that dream of what might happen,” he says.

Naming Raining In My Heart, Early In The Morning and True Love Ways – the song that accompanied his walk down the aisle on his wedding day – as his Holly favourites, Christopher will be on tour until October.

Next week he will tread the Grand Opera House boards for the first time since playing The Big Three bassist Johnny Gustafson in Cilla, The Musical in January 2018, as he heads north once more.

Should you be wondering about his northern connections: “My mother’s side of the family is from Ilkley. Do you know my uncle?” he enquires. Who? “Mike Laycock!”

Mike Laycock, soon-to-retire chief reporter of The Press, no less.

Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, runs at Grand Opera House, York, March 21 to 25, 7.30pm plus 2.30pm Wednesday and Saturday matinees.  Box office:

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