A lot of trouble has been taken to make this 25th Anniversary touring show of Buddy a really energizing theatrical experience—and it all works. You can go for what you will learn about Holly’s life; you can go for a sentimental journey through a life that ended prematurely and tragically; you can go simply to hear a great songbook. You will experience all three, whatever your focus.
The show is really like a contemporary version of one of those 1950s Hollywood Biopics (the ones about the likes of Glenn Miller, Ruth Etting, Gus Kahn, Loring “Red” Nichols, etc) where the real point is the excuse it gives to create wonderful new production numbers and play versions of the songs associated with the subject. And one of the main reasons this show is such a success is simply the quality and memorability of the music. Over and over again I was delighted by the sheer inventiveness of the songs. The company, which is young and talented, performs every number with commitment and verve; the band is right up there on the stage to watch; and the quality of the construction of the show is very fine.
There is not a lot of story when you are writing about someone who died in a grizzly accident at the age of 22, but the script is beautifully paced, tells the tale well and clearly, is theatrically engaging, gives performers a chance for characterization that makes sense; and builds cleverly to a climax that is, essentially, a re-creation of the final appearance in a show that Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens performed in together before taking that ill-fated flight. There is not one performance I can fault; but the show is definitely built around Buddy Holly, who is on stage almost the entire time, performs many songs and ends by having to do a long and complex routine. Roger Rowley, who was performing the role in Oxford on the opening night, was almost breath-takingly perfect. He was completely watchable at all times. He didn’t miss a trick, a line, a note or a nuance. His sheer physicality as Holly seemed to increase throughout the evening. Given the size of his role and the energy required for the end of the evening, his stamina was amazing and his delivery faultless. He wasn’t simply copying the jumping, dancing, sliding gestures of Buddy Holly; he was completely and convincingly playing the role. Quite rightly, he steals the show. But in this case there was more. Rowley’s performance came across as a real interpretation. This was as near as one can get to feeling what it must have been like to see Buddy Holly perform.
Special mention should be made of Lydia Fraser and Miguel Angel who are given a spotlight turn as performers at the Apollo in New York’s Harlem on the night that Buddy Holly and the Crickets made their debut there. Yet the show is Rowley’s. The audience was whipped up into great enthusiasm by the end of the evening and stood up, every one, to sing and clap and bop and join in. As sheer theatre, this show really works. It is also going to make you want to hear the original recordings of most of the songs.
The show powerfully conveys what a real talent Buddy Holly had; his integrity in relation to his talent; and what a loss it was when that plane crashed. You can see, also, what an influence Holly was on his generation of musicians for years to come. As Don McLean said in his song “American Pie”, when that plane crashed, you could feel that it was the night the music died.
The death of Buddy Holly was a huge loss to contemporary music and this show drives that point home. Also, this touring show does recreate a lot of the energy and wonder of Buddy Holly and it is a great chance to experience the songs in a concentrated and extremely well-performed way. I recommend it very highly for what you will learn and also for its sheer entertainment value.