Buddy is an early example of a juke box musical. It was first performed in 1989. From my recollection of seeing it many years ago on a previous tour, this latest version seems to have more of the music and less of the story. There is, for example, an extended concert sequence at the end of Act 1 set at the Apollo theatre in Harlem. But I may be mis-remembering. It’s been a long time and there have been many more juke box musicals since!
There is a problem with telling the Buddy Holly story, which is that his career as a performer and song writer of any note lasted less than two years before his untimely death in a plane crash in February 1959. And that offers precious little time for the kind of conflict or drama that attaches itself to other artists with longer careers and, therefore, marriages, divorces and children. So the Buddy Holly story is mainly about the music. It’s striking how many tunes performed by him and in many cases written by him are still well-known standards. No wonder his death at the age of just 22 along with the J. P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) aged 28 and Ritchie Valens aged 17 (the pilot was also in his twenties) is known as the day the music died.
It is the knowledge we have of this brilliant promise so tragically cut short that colours everything about Buddy Holly’s story. And it is the music which is best served by this latest tour. As a musical Buddy makes exceptional demands of its young cast. Not only must they act and sing, but also play instruments. So they are in effect their own band. And unlike a conventional pit-based band they don’t have the luxury of sheet music from which to play. Their dynamism and energy is enough to make you forgive the rather perfunctory attention paid to exploring the characters and stories other than through the songs.
As Buddy A J Jenks was on sparkling form and convinced us of Buddy Holly’s genuine passion to do something different musically. Miguel Angel provided a much needed boost of energy in Act 1 as Tyrone Jones, host at the Harlem Apollo, with a brilliant performance of Reet Petite. Harry Boyd, meanwhile, turned in a bravura set of performances as various producers, managers and other industry figures crossing Buddy’s path. He was great in them all, although I found I was losing some if his words when he was being the narrator, largely because of the lilting style of the southern drawl he used in that role.
Since this production first appeared the biographical juke box musical has come a long way. More recent shows like Jersey Boys and Tina have more edge. But they still follow a form that was largely invented here. It may seem less fresh now, but Buddy Holly’s astounding and all-too brief contribution to modern popular music is enough to sustain this show on its own.
Buddy is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford, until Saturday 12 October 2019.