BUDDY – THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY, presented by Pieter Toerien by arrangement with the book writer Alan Janes, is currently onstage at the Artscape Theatre as a nostalgia driven jukebox musical that will delight many.
BUDDY – THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY tells the tale of Buddy Holly’s rise to fame spanning the period of 1956 until 1959 when a tragic accident cut the lives short of Holly and fellow musicians Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. The story shared with the audience is a selective one. It glosses over key moments that could add depth to the character of Holly (who rumour has it was extremely shy when not holding a guitar) only briefly touching on the catastrophic impact of the relationship breakdown with his manager and the heart-breaking obstacles faced by him and Maria Elena Santiago (later Holly) in pursuit of their love-at-first-sight romance. The musical only shows us an over confident, even cocky, Holly and builds from there, which seems an opportunity lost at discovering the multi-dimensional soul of the man behind the much loved music.
On opening night there was a great energy of excited anticipation in the air. You walk in, seeing Buddy Holly’s face projected onto the curtain and, for those well acquainted with his music, just that image alone pulls on your heart strings. The scene is set, the curtain goes up, and the Hayriders kick us off before Buddy (the yet undiscovered talent) and The Crickets give the audience a taste of the rock ‘n’ roll that influenced musical icons such as John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Elton John, and Paul McCartney.
The musical first opened in 1989. Considering that time stamp on the stereotypes so heavily relied upon in Janes’ book, one understands why those character portrayals don’t necessarily translate well in the current day production –a production that still stands guided by that original concept.
Nevertheless, director Nick Winston, who is also the choreographer, has put together a production that is sleek and well performed. Niall Griffin’s set and costume design compliment this all beautifully and gives the production movement that sets the scene for a playful show. The lighting design by Oliver Hauser further adds to the production value. The accents are a bit generic and the acting takes a slight back seat at times, but the music, impressively performed live (with the support of Wessel Odendaal and the production band) is of a top notch quality. Jethro Tait has charm as Buddy Holly, and he is clearly well supported by the rest of the cast.
The standout moments for me were the ones where Tait and Gabriela Dos Santos (as Maria) give the audience a quick glimpse into the magic and honesty that informed Buddy and Maria’s relationship, culminating in the scene where Buddy serenades Maria with “True Love Ways”. From a comedic angle, Bethany Dickson hits the mark as tone-deaf, spotlight-chasing beauty queen, Mary Lou Sokoloff, in the part of Act Two that pays homage to the last show Buddy would ever perform.
On paper, especially seeing as the songs of Buddy Holly are legendary chart-toppers, this production should be a runaway hit. It is indeed well produced and presented (already promising value for money), but somehow it lacks that energy one associates with a jukebox musical of this nature. The pacing felt off on opening night –maybe it’s that opening night curse of peaking too soon with great previews– and the performances felt slightly lacklustre. Apart from the high energy opening scene, the show only picked up to a slight toe-tapping tempo when Buddy joined The Winter Dance Party on tour, and interacts with The Big Bopper and Valens while performing at the Surf Ballroom (the performance right before they boarded the plane destined to crash that same night).
The tragedy that underlies the musical is brilliantly depicted at the end (with sound bite hints sporadically throughout the show) when in a moment that reveals striking minimalistic visuals for maximum emotional impact Winston’s direction and Griffin’s design merges perfectly with the aid of Mark Malherbe’s sound design to reveal the spirit of the show that I wish could reverberate more throughout Janes’ story vision. That unseen, yet fully perceived, plane crash moment that the creative team highlights towards the end of the show is the one that still pulls my soul back to the theatre when I think of this musical.
In a rather puzzling choice the finale/curtain call (which contains the pace and heightened energy I wished for throughout the show) sees the ensemble performing Chuck Berry’s Johnny B Goode rather than an original Buddy Holly hit. This odd song choice appears to be the case with this musical as performed around the world, and not unique to this production. Perhaps if the musical did the work to establish the fact that Holly was greatly influenced (and even borrowed riffs) from artists like Chuck Berry it would not stand out as such an odd choice. Absent such a narrative development it feels out of place to end a musical about Buddy Holly with any song that isn’t quintessentially his.
If you are a lover of the music of Buddy Holly, I am sure that nostalgia will add to the delight of seeing this musical. If you are not yet enthralled by his songs and story, I am not certain that seeing this production will move you to create a Spotify playlist afterwards. This one is very much rooted in heart more than in high-eneregy production style when it comes to the choice of booking tickets through Webtickets.
You have until 16 April 2023 to see BUDDY – THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY at the Artscape Theatre before it transfers to Montecasino.