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Not Fade Away: The Buddy Holly Story

28 June 2017

The Buddy Holly Story

by Alan Janes

Alan Janes Productions at Richmond Theatre until 1st July

Review by Thomas Forsythe

Two weeks ago, I was driving along the A303, that long straight stretch of country road, when suddenly there loomed up a strange sight, Mattia’s Diner, an authentic 1950’s American road-trip diner, seemingly lost in the middle of Somerset, like an aluminium and neon ship aground on a foreign sandbank.  Of course, I stopped to eat.  Once there, I wished I had come in my be-finned 1959 Chevy convertible (except I haven’t got one), as inside the Diner is all authentic US memorabilia of the period, with plenty of pictures of Marilyn, Frank, Elvis and of course Buddy Holly.

Enter Richmond Theatre this week and you will feel the same, for The Buddy Holly Story has come to town.  Billed as “The World’s Most Successful Rock n’ Roll Musical” the UK production of this jukebox musical has been touring all year, so grab your chance while it is in Richmond.

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In fact what you get is two shows.  The first half is a biography of just two years of the legendary singer’s life, whereas most of the second half is an ultra-high-energy tribute show to Buddy and his contemporaries, largely based on Holly’s final concert at Clear Lake, Iowa.  The show within the show commemorates the musician who is recognised as the foundation of rock n’ roll.  Although earlier he had been at the foot of the playbill for then up-and-coming names such as Bill Haley and Elvis Presley, his own recording career lasted under two years.  Nevertheless, it was Buddy Holly who is the inspiration for the megastars of the genre who followed, including the name most closely associated with Richmond, The Rolling Stones.

The Richmond connection continues into this very production, as the eponymous role in The Buddy Holly Story is played by Alex Fobbester, who lived and trained in Kingston and Chiswick.  Fobbester’s portrayal of Buddy Holly is a well-researched study.  The looks, the mannerisms are all there, including the awkward smile and the fiddling with the trademark spectacles.  Holly was self-assured but impetuous, respectful but rebellious and these character traits (perhaps they are those that guarantee success) are well studied.  Holly’s tirelessness is there too, and Fobbester obviously has that in common, as he puts his all into his multi-talented performance, as actor, singer, guitarist and dancer.

Being multi-talented seems to run across the whole cast, who multi-task their bobby-socks off, and almost all of whom have multiple roles.  The principal role of Buddy is also a split role shared with Glen Joseph, an acclaimed Buddy Holly tribute artist.

Yee-hah!! We start in Texas, in Lubbock, Buddy’s home town, where we visit the Grand Bowl, the KDAV radio station and, yes, a diner, uncannily like one on the A303.

Hipockets Duncan, the top DJ at the KDAV radio station launched the fledging career of Buddy Holly as a regular item in his country and western programme, but when Holly began to insist on adding in his own style including percussive guitar playing, bent notes, and rhythm n’ blues flourishes; plus vocal idiosyncrasies such as falsetto passages and hiccoughs (!) listeners complained.  Duncan tore up Holly’s contract with KDAV … but not before he had landed him with a recording contract with Decca.  Matthew Quinn’s Duncan has all the Texan characteristics to a tee, the easy, gangling style of walking and talking; all laid-back until riled.

Of course Buddy would not have been Buddy without The Crickets, and we are treated to some of the early chart-toppers, Not Fade Away, and Peggy Sue.  Peggy Sue was the name of the girlfriend of Jerry Allison, the drummer for the Crickets (but the song was originally entitled Cindy Lou after Holly’s niece).  Josh Haberfield’s drumming skills as Allison complement those of his acting skills.  Equally, Joe Butcher as Joe B. Maudlin, double bass with The Crickets is able to show his twin skills to the full.  The Crickets and Holly were initially inseparable, until exhaustion, contract law and petty squabbles eventually frayed their relationship.

The Decca contact was an early one without the Crickets, but it didn’t work and they were soon on their way together to Clovis, New Mexico, to see Norman Petty, another introduction from Hipockets Duncan.  Petty was very much more open to their style and immediately signed a contract with them: for 50-50 of the royalties plus a tithe to the local church.  This was later to prove a source of great friction between them and disputes over royalties even dogged his estate after his death.  Alex Tosh plays Petty as a slick and pragmatic realist.   Celia Cruwys-Finnigan spices her role as Petty’s wife Vi with a good sprinkling of humour and impressively “shakes it” at the piano.   The Petty’s are credited with introducing more innovations to the repertoire, including “that echo thing” as Buddy called the tape lag, and the use of the celesta (the keyboard instrument best known in Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.  Vi plays the celesta in Holly’s Everyday, while Jerry Alison’s percussion is by created slapping his thighs.

Under Petty’s encouragement, Holly wrote and recorded his first and most successful blockbuster hit with The Crickets, That’ll Be the Day.   In less than twelve months it was top of the charts in seven different countries. (The song’s title is a quote from a line in a John Wayne Western.)

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Recording trips to New York led to Holly accepting a live concert in the Apollo Theatre, not knowing that it was one of Harlem’s “black” music venues.  Regular performers there, played with great dexterity and remarkable dancing skills by Miguel Angel and Jordon Cunningham, expect them to be booed off the stage, or worse, but in fact after an unsure start, they are enthusiastically accepted after a rending of Not Fade Away and Oh Boy.  Puerto Rican, Miguel Angel, himself a vibrant performer in the show, dancer, singer and trombonist, doubles as the show’s choreographer.

In New York, at the office of Murray Deutch (played by Matthew Quinn), Holly met Maria Elena Santiago, the receptionist.  Within five minutes of meeting her, true to his impulsive nature, Holly told her he would marry her.  He proposed on his first date within five hours of meeting her, and married her within five months, a precipitous act that both his mother and The Crickets thought reckless.  Kerry Low plays a warm and believable Maria, the outsider unacceptable and barely accepted by Holly’s circle.

 

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Holly’s final show at the Clear Lake Concert gives the The Buddy Holly Story company chance to really go to town.  Designer Adrian Rees’ set for the first half has a “window on the world” metaphor as it is overseen by an insert level that is variously recording studio, radio station, and control rooms in literal and metaphorical senses, whereas the show within the show fills the stage with swagged drapes and stacks of pizzazz.  This is an ideal foil for lighting designer Daz Coopland to use intelli-lights and special effects to really punch the atmosphere.  The lighting for Harlem’s Apollo gave full reign to a palette of saturated colour which is then given the full-on bling in Clear Lake.  And it goes without saying that Pete Cox’s sound design made for a very busy time for his techies.

 

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The Clear Lake Concert introduces two of Holly’s co-performers, Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson, known as The Big Bopper to all.  Jordan Cunningham is a fantastically energetic and agile dancer, with vertebrae jarring swirlings, whirlings and gyrations that pay high-voltage homage to the style of Ritchie Valens especially in his set number La Bamba.  And for high-voltage exuberance The Big Bopper was superlative.  He brought rockabilly to rock n’ roll.  Thomas Mitchells plays The Big Bopper, well, big.  There can be no other way than OTT, which Mitchells unashamedly and consummately gives.  Dressed in leopard-skin drape jacket, pink trousers and built-up red suede shoes, it demands a musical statement, and it comes in the form of The Big Bopper’s 1958 hit, Chantilly Lace.   The whole cast joins in party and our first night audience loved it, boogying away standing in front of their seats.  The Buddy Holly Story director Matt Salisbury must be smiling broadly at the show’s reception as he has done on previous tours going back to 1989.

Then Buddy Holly, in the form of Alex Fobbester, is back with two quieter numbers, Raining in My Heart and It Doesn’t Matter Any More, ironic titles in the original Clear Lake Concert in 1959.  We Rave On with Johnny B Goode and suddenly with the party going full blast … all goes quiet and dark.  Then a spotlight on Holly’s guitar standing on the forestage.

That evening on 3rd February, 1959 exactly five hundred days after That’ll Be the Day topped the U.S. charts, Holly and his co-stars left the Clear Lake Concert to fly by light plane to the next gig in Moorhead, Minnesota.  The plane crashed shortly after take-off and music stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, all died together with the pilot Roger Peterson.   Holly’s Fender Stratocaster marks his grave.  The tragedy is referred to as “the day the music died” in Don McLean’s well-known 1971 song American Pie.

If I go back to that diner on the A303, I shall order a big helping of American Pie, and think (Think it Over, in the words of the song) of Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper … and Buddy Holly.

Thomas Forsythe

June 2017

Photography by Johnny Wilkinson

 

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From → musicals, Reviews

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