Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story – Orchard Theatre, Dartford

Reviewer: Dan English

Writer: Alan Janes

Director: Matt Salisbury

Plenty of rock and roll brings an early music icon back to life in this jukebox musical, Buddy -The Buddy Holly Story, which reaches Dartford’s Orchard Theatre as part of its UK Tour.

It is a simple story. The musical charts the rise of Holly, who pushes back against the dominance of country music back home in Texas, searching for fame and fortune with his electric guitar and its unique sound. Alan Janes’ musical squeezes in as many Holly hits as he can in this production.

Starring as Buddy Holly is the fantastic AJ Jenks. His portrayal of Holly, and the growth seen in his character as his music career takes off, is superb and Jenks captures the rock and roll rhythm of the musician perfectly. Jenks’ showmanship, particularly in the latter half of Act 2, which celebrates Holly’s final night, oozes class and energy, and draws out a real sense of fun in the performance. In addition, Jenks’ emulation of Holly’s sound is impressive and while the risk that many have when leading such jukebox musicals is that it falls into a glossy tribute act, Jenks’ delivery is more layered than that, and deservedly takes the plaudits at the end.

The production is supported by an excellent and talented ensemble cast who throw you back into 50s America with ease. Christopher Chandler and Miguel Angel, who portray The Big Bopper and Riche Valens respectively, two other victims of the plane crash which took Holly, are both larger than life, bringing you quickly into the rock and roll hysteria and showmanship of the time. In addition, Buddy’s ‘Crickets’, his bandmates, draw out some of the comedic moments of Janes’ script too, though it is a shame that there is not more on how the band and Holly go their separate ways.

There are a few moments in this show that suffer a little from a plodding and disjointed pace. Holly’s tragic death aged just 22 does mean that there is not a great deal of plot to the show. In fact, some of the key moments in Holly’s life, such as meeting wife Maria Elena, or securing his first record deal, feel skimmed over, while other moments such as some of Act 2’s ‘call and response’ audience participation moments are a little more suited to a pantomime than a musical. However, there is still plenty for Buddy Holly fans, and fans of 50s music, to enjoy, and Janes is right to focus on celebrating Holly’s impressively extensive back catalogue for such a young age. It is also impressive just how moving the reveal of Holly’s death is at the end of the show. This is a stark contrast to the life seen just moments before, and is one of the piece’s strongest moments.

Adrian Rees’ design is simplistic yet effective, and works well in focusing attention on the music of the show. The design frames the stage with patterns recognised from the time, but there are also glitzy scene changes when moving from recording studio to performances, with the angelic silver which backdrops Holly’s final performance almost grimly foreshadowing what’s to come. Like Holly himself, the design is meticulously slick and supports the production well.

Buddy -The Buddy Holly Story is a must-see for fans of the star. This show breathes new life into songs which are almost 70 years old, and the energy of the cast who bring this to life deserves the praise it reaps at the end. There are a few flaws in this show but, if, as Holly says, you’re looking to ‘rave on’, this one’s for you.

Runs until 20 May 2023 then continues UK tour.

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The South East team is under the editorship of Nicole Craft. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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