The Buddy Holly Story

A 22 year-old musical about a 22 year-old rock legend. Buddy Holly might be gone, but his songs live on

The Buddy Holly Story rolls back into Belfast – and what a story it is. As well as pioneering the two guitars, bass and drums set-up that is still favoured by bands worldwide, Holly’s short life established several rock ‘n’ roll staples. There’s the interfering wife, the messy band break-up, the wrestling over the name, the domineering manager and of course the untimely death. Holly and the Crickets were living Spinal Tap back when Christopher Guest was still in short trousers.

The musical Buddy has now been running since 1989 – 22 years, the same length of time Holly was alive. The bespectacled, guitar-toting legend was killed in a plane crash on February 3, 1959, along with fellow rockers Ritchie Valens and JP 'The Big Bopper' Richardson. Glen Joseph plays Holly at the Grand Opera House, along with Miguel Angel as Valens and Steve Dorsett as the Bopper. They’re well cast, and tackle the roles with energy and enthusiasm.

The story begins in Lubbock, Texas, where the fledgling Crickets are being groomed as country stars, despite wanting to play the new rock ‘n’ roll music that is sweeping the nation. The plucky trio stick to their guns, and soon they are topping the charts and having their pick of the ladies.

We spend some time in Norman Petty’s (Kyle Riley) New Mexico studio, watching the creation of classic tracks like ‘Not Fade Away’, ‘Words of Love’ and ‘Oh Boy!’. True-life moments include drummer Jerry Allison (portrayed by Dan Graham) beating out the rhythm to ‘Peggy Sue’ on his thighs and pushing Holly to change the name from ‘Cindy Lue’, and hard-living bassist Joe B Mauldin (Christopher Redmond) knocking back whiskey between takes.

The story begins to turn sour when Holly meets record company receptionist María Elena Santiago (Felicity Chilver), and proposes marriage within five hours. Yet despite María Elena’s fearsome reputation (she still holds the rights to her husband’s name and likeness, despite the couple having known each other for less than eight months), the scene in which Holly plays ‘True Love Ways’ to her the night before setting off on the fateful Winter Dance Party tour is desperately poignant.

The tour itself is recreated with storming renditions of the Big Bopper’s ‘Chantilly Lace’, with the larger-than-life vocalist parading around in a red suit and leopard-print overcoat, and Valens’ ‘La Bamba’. Holly delivers triumphant versions of ‘Maybe Baby’, ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Rave On’, and there’s a mass singalong on Chuck Berry’s ‘Johnny B Goode’.

Elsewhere in the show, there are some good insights into 1950s racial tensions, from the studio bosses’ prejudice against ‘coloured music’ to the rough ride the Crickets experience at the Apollo Theatre in mainly black Harlem. But it never gets too heavy, and a rollicking tune – performed live by the actors themselves – is never far away.

And at the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about. Buddy Holly may be remembered for many things, but nothing more so than the catalogue of amazing songs he and the Crickets left behind.

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