Book: Alan Janes
Music and Lyrics: Buddy Holly and others
Director: Adrian Rees
Reviewer: John Kennedy
This Buddy Holly Story – a love letter to the more innocent times of Kodachrome snaps, Bobby-sox, pig-tails and ridiculous finned automobiles (being white helped enormously) rarely fails to engage its audience.
A Lubbock, Texas, born son of the latter Depression years, Holly’s torch burned bright until the day the music died in that fatal air crash in 1959 Doh! Spoiler there. His wholesome, boy next door persona, with that shrewdly exploited, unthreatening specky-geek appearance belied his prodigious talent and visionary ambition. His catalogue of foot-tapping Bo Diddley, Rock ‘n’ Roll and jingling, tear-jerking ballads form the two-hour passage on this stage tonight. The publicity celebrates that this show that never ends has attracted over 22 million people worldwide. By tonight’s headcount, a barely half full auditorium, suggests there are fewer than anticipated left in Birmingham who haven’t seen it already.
The prevailing penchant for musical retro-candy relies on a connect with the audience’s imperative to get their butts off seats and aisle-jive with abandon. Explaining the shaky Facebook snaps can be explained tomorrow. Tonight’s cast had to work hard at this. Alex Fobbester’s Buddy is convincing and ahh-shucks homely convincing, his steely driven purpose soon coming to the fore.
The disastrous early Decca demo recordings segue neatly into the enlightened faith and drive of Alex Tosh’s drawling, patient, producer, Norman Petty. The hits begin to explode across the national airwaves. Director, Matt Salisbury and Musical Supervisor, John Banister have made shrewd judgments in balancing live performances with original recordings that slip and slide seamlessly.
Scene transitions are steeped in cute late 50s contemporary radio jingles sung with harmonised, polka-dot and gingham charm. Designer, Adrian Rees takes a ubiquitous skyscraper silhouette tableau and renders it in geometric myriad cubist oblongs and squares. Meanwhile, The Washington Post, according to the voice of Lubbock Radio – KDVA, claims, ‘Rock & Roll is a communicative disease.’ Buddy is told he has about as much chance with his style of music as Ray Charles has of singing in The White House. The stigma of his music sounding ‘too Coloured’ still rankles.
A whirlwind marriage, seemingly terminal break-up from the Crickets still has Buddy’s muse anointing him with the balm of timeless melodies. Artistically, and not least financially, he must undertake a two-week winter tour with The Big Bopper, played with near certifiable brothel-creeper bombast by Thomas Mitchells, and the impossibly pelvically dexterous, Richie Valens (Jordan Cunningham).
There’s one seat left on that one plane out of Clear Lake and an ominous blizzard is already brewing. Maria Elena’s, Holly’s pregnant wife, premonitions of some impending disaster begin to resonate. Valence’s flip of a coin wins him that spare seat. For him, Bopper and Buddy nothing will matter anymore. Notwithstanding the near beatification of Holly’s legacy, the show falls short of exploiting this. Mawkishness aside, a spot-lit solitary guitar has its place as symbolic poignancy but where is the dramatic tension, the suspense, the knowing the ending but still gripped by its tragic inevitability?
Nostalgia sure ain’t what it used to be. There’s a sense that this long touring franchise has reached saturation point and is cocking a snook at the law of diminishing returns. The love of Buddy Holly is a love that will never fade away but there’s a limit to how much raving on about it can make the heart beat any faster. Highlight forever is the – less is more – early studio session where Vi Petty (Celia Cruwys-Finnegan) sprinkles fairy dust over the celeste keyboard and Buddy busks a near perfect one-take recording of Everyday.
Runs until 1 April 2017 | Image: Contributed