Buddy Holly’s enduringly popular songs practically invented the modern so-called juke box musical, with the often revived Buddy Holly Story. That’s a great show, but in 3 Steps to Heaven the concept is taken to its ultimate: shorn of any pretence of telling a story this concert lets the music do the talking. Alongside Holly the producers have chosen another writer and star whose life and career was cut tragically short (in a car accident travelling from a UK concert), Eddie Cochran. His posthumous hit provides the title for the show. Completing the trio we have Roy Orbison. He was stylistically quite different from Holly or Cochran. But then his style was uniquely his own and doesn’t neatly fit with anyone else’s. He also has influences from the 60s to the 80s in his catalogue as he lived until 1988, even then dying relatively young at only 52.
The concert is an invention as the three never performed together. It does, though, bring together a huge catalogue of huge hits. We are reminded that Holly wrote and recorded eight hit records in just two years. These are songs that are still well known today. What’s more they are well known in their original versions, not from re-worked and re-imagined covers. Quite an achievement for someone who died in 1959 aged just 22. Cochran also had hits which live on, such as C’mon Everybody and Summertime Blues. And whilst most people in the audience would either not have been born or at best have been children when Holly and Cochran had hits, many more remember Orbison, whose You Got It chartered immediately after his death in 1988.
So that’s the history and the context; what about the show? Our three leads perform as Cochran, Holly and Orbison without breaking character. As Cochrane, Jonny Labey has a rich voice and a winning stage presence. Edward Handoll has history playing Holly and dons the famous specs with ease. His set contains probably the most well known songs and he re-creates the Holly sound perfectly. Peter Howarth stands rock solid still as the man in black, the big O, (complete with black wig and sunglasses) allowing his soaring voice and huge range to complete the transformation.
The three stars are backed by a supremely professional band headed by musical director Pierce Tee on keyboards. He skilfully enables us to hear live the Holly songs recorded with string backing, something I imagine Holly himself could never do in concert. And whilst the stars are in character from the 50s and 60s, the backing musicians are just themselves. Indeed, the quality of the sound and the stylish lighting design make this concert, I suspect, technically superior to anything either Cochran or Holly would have been able to aspire to in the 1950s.
The whole thing comes together brilliantly to recreate live versions of songs most people know so well from the original records. Being so well known gives the musicians a challenge because every note, every pause, every detail of the arrangements has to be spot-on. And it is (or at least it seemed so to me). They could have sat back and assumed that the audience would be happy just to hear such well known songs again. In effect just letting the songs to do all the work. But these musicians provide highly polished and professional performances which honour the music they are playing and provide more hits in one evening than you’re likely to find in any other show.
3 Steps to Heaven is at the Orchard Theatre, Dartford until Saturday 12 February 2022 and then continues on tour.