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Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story – lots of music, not as much drama (Grand Opera House until Saturday 19 August)

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story. The very title hints at a split personality. And there are two discernible halves to this touring musical production that ran for more than a decade on the West End and has been seen by 22 million people across the world.

The strongest part is a 12-piece tribute act that rocks the final quarter of the show, playing song after song from Buddy Holly’s final concert in the Surf Ballroom in Clear lake, Iowa. That’s ‘the day the music died’ as Don McLean phrased it in American Pie, the night that Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens all perished in a plane crash along with pilot Roger Peterson.

They’re a tight musical group, with fast fingered AJ Jenks playing the lead role, backed by drums, bass, rhythm guitar, a great brass section, backing singers, Bopper and Valens. Earlier on, the first act finishes with Oh Boy and show-stealing stunt double bass playing by Joe Butcher (Joe B Mauldin in the band). Drummer Josh Haberfield (Jerry Allison) impresses throughout, as at home behind his kit as when he’s idly slapping out the rhythm of Everyday on his thighs. Jenks has the glasses, the mannerisms, the vocal tics and the tilting guitar moves. The unplugged version of True Love Ways comes with free goosebumps. He portrays a musician who is clearly impulsive, but never quite developed an infectious public magnetism.

However, this isn’t simply a tribute concert, even though that would have been a wholesome intention. It’s billed as the story of Buddy Holly’s short 18-month career. Bouncing between radio and recording studios, Thomas Mitchells narrates much of the story. But Alan Janes’ script is flimsy (repeated jokes about Holly’s mum’s obsession with what he’s eating), the scene changes default to just turning down the lights for 30 seconds, and the choreography is unremarkable unless there’s music involved. While the set is redressed for the final concert, the curtain descends and Mitchells leads a series of audience callouts – it feels like pantomime season has arrived four months early when we learn the names of Leanne and Paul from Antrim in the front row of the stalls – just the latest in a series of moments of audience participation that pad out the runtime and attempt to reinflate the atmosphere after some of the more pedestrian scenes.

Don’t get me wrong, most of the Grand Opera House audience were having a great time, humming along with the songs, a few even getting to their feet to dance during key moments. Miguel Angel’s rendition of La Bamba in his role of Ritchie Valens is a highlight. Looking along the row in which I was seated, there were huge grins of people’s faces. But I’d argue that they were connecting with the music and not the story. Holly’s death is marked simply and effectively before the final few songs. But it’s not a sad moment. Having watched his accelerated courtship (measured in hours), we learn that his new wife was pregnant by the time he went out on his last tour. But we only see Maria Elena the once. Every group needs a manager to take advantage of them. But there’s only a blink and you’d miss it back reference back to Norman Petty’s financial chicanery.

The sound mix is excellent, favouring the wired mics and instruments of the 1950s for the musical performances. The lighting is strangely uneven, with the faces of major characters sometimes left in the gloom unless they were blessed with the single follow-spot.

Overall, I found Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story to be full of rhythm but a bit soulless. It’s a musical blast, but the storyline fails to grip. I’m clearly in a minority with the show running for more than a decade on the West End and more than 22 million people attending performances worldwide. But it never reaches the heights of musical storytelling of a show like Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story continues in the Grand Opera House until Saturday 19 August.

Photo credit: Rebecca Need-Menear

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This post first appeared on Alan In Belfast, please read the originial post: here

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Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story – lots of music, not as much drama (Grand Opera House until Saturday 19 August)


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