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Review: Buddy Holly at The Opera House is ‘exuberant, wonderful and heartwarming’

Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story is one of only a very small number of musicals that can boast an impressive 3 decades on stage

To give some idea as to the magnitude of this achievement, it is an accolade that is shared only by Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and a very few select others. 

Since it first opened at London’s Victoria Palace Theatre in 1989, it has been seen by over 22 million theatre-goers, worldwide, and in the decades since, it has had a profound impact on the musical scene, serving as inspiration for other ‘jukebox’ musicals like Mamma Mia and We Will Rock You. 

It tells the story of Buddy Holly’s meteoric rise to super-stardom from humble beginnings, to his very brief but explosive time in the limelight, culminating in his legendary final performance at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, just hours before his tragic and untimely death.

With a career that spanned just 18 months, he changed the landscape of contemporary music and would go on to influence everyone from the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen.

If not for the impact of Buddy Holly, modern music as we know it may well have been unrecognisable.

To quote the title of a song by another band who were undoubtedly influenced by Holly: the Beach Boys… ‘God only knows’ what he might have gone on to achieve had his career not been so suddenly and tragically cut short on that fateful day on February 3rd, 1959 when he and his fellow musicians, Ritchie Valens, and The Big Bopper were killed in a plane crash –  referred to by Don McLean in his legendary track ‘American Pie’ as ‘the day the music died’.

He was just 22 years old.

Embarking on its 34th year on stage – Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story marks its return to Manchester, at the Opera House under director Matt Salisbury and Writer/Producer, Alan Janes.

It features an incredibly talented cast of actor-musicians who bring the iconic music of Holly, Valens, the Big Bopper, and others to life. And the audience on opening night was certainly in the mood for some of that old-time rock and roll. 

For the relatively uninitiated, such as myself, it was great to finally be able to put a face, or a name, to the Buddy Holly songs I had heard over the years without realising they were his.

Almost from the get-go, Holly, played with youthful exuberance by the wonderful AJ Jenks (Million-dollar Quartet, Saturday Night Fever), leads his ‘crickets’ (bandmates), Joe B. Mauldin (Joe Butcher), and Jerry Allison (Josh Haberfield) into ‘That’ll Be The Day’, as they are attempting to get their rebellious brand of rock and roll onto the airwaves through a series of radio performances in the country music dominated landscape of 1950s Texas.

Determined to not be fashioned into a country and western-style singer by the producers and disc jockeys in his home town, Holly takes his crickets to the neighbouring state of New Mexico, where he forms a relationship with the more experimentally minded producer, Norman Petty (Thomas Mitchells).

This really kickstarts Holly’s rise to superstardom as he quickly achieves a number 1 record and goes on to play a now legendary set at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York – the first white rock act to ever have done so. 

It is at the Apollo that we are first introduced to the show-stealing Miguel Angel, who plays Tyrone Jones, and later, Ritchie Valens.

His hip-thrusting –  “If Elvis does it, why can’t I?” – high-energy performance gets the audience going, and it is here that the party atmosphere starts to build.

To further add to this uptick in tempo, is a superb rendition of ‘Shout’ by Marlena Madison (Samuelle Durojaiye), and Laura-Dene Perryman (Chantel Williams), who, along with Angel’s Jones, add an element of humour to proceedings – an unexpected added component of the show.

It is really funny. Especially in the 2nd half when the audience is treated to the wise-cracking, and incomparable compering of the aforementioned Thomas Mitchells, who pulls off an impressive ensemble performance throughout.  

From here on in, and for the vast majority of the 2nd half, the show is presented as a concert, minimising the acting and focusing more on the music. The concert in question is the final and fateful one of Buddy Holly’s short but legendary career – the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. 

The audience is first treated to a lascivious performance of ‘Chantilly Lace’ by the Big Bopper (Christopher Chandler), and soon after, by Miguel Angel, this time as Ritchie Valens, who gives an explosive rendition of his most famous hit ‘La Bamba’. This was the song that broke out the dancing from the, until then, relatively reserved audience. 

Where one lady bravely rose and started the trend, many others soon followed, and by the time the curtain had fallen on a spectacular ensemble performance of Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B. Goode’, there wasn’t an occupied seat in the house. 

A celebration of Buddy Holly’s life, with over 20 of his hits presented over 2 hours of fantastic rock and roll that will have audiences of all ages dancing in the aisles, Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story runs at the Opera House Manchester from Thu 20 Apr – Sat 22 Apr 2023.

Tickets are available from £13.00.

You can get them here

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