Buddy: The Musical

Feb 24 - March 17 (Lyric Theatre)

While it has become a cliche that dying young is a good career move for an entertainer, Buddy Holly was without doubt an original and very talented performer whose loss to popular music was immense.

Buddy: The Musical magnificently captures the essence of Holly’s music and personality in a throbbing, vibrant show that no-one could fail to enjoy.

Craig Urbani is brilliant as Buddy Holly, radiating creativity, youthful energy, irreverence and cheerful optimism in equal measures as he vibrates his way through more than two hours of absorbing entertainment. Almost never off the stage, Urbani’s energy levels rise and rise as the show rolls along, ending with mind-boggling gymnastics and back-to-front guitar playing as he whips his audience into a delighted frenzy.

The Lyric Theatre’s well-oiled stage machinery hums in top gear to conjure up a dizzying array of scene and set changes back and forth from radio studios to recording studios to concert platforms, hotels, business offices, apartments. Flashing neon signage, advertising posters and radio jingles remind us of the commercial underpinnings of the pop music industry.

This is not a musical in the traditional sense, where musical lines substitute for spoken dialogue and play a vital part in plot and character development. The music of Buddy is entirely that of the songs, mostly Holly’s, but with other musical styles including country & western and gospel to provide a contrast. It is amusing at the first appearance of Buddy Holly and the Crickets to see them described as a “country and western trio”. (And it is startling to reflect on how innocent and essentially wholesome was the form of rock’n’roll popularised by Holly and his contemporaries, given the fierce opposition and resentment it sparked among the older generation. Will today’s teenage music seem similarly benign in 40 years?)

The nature of the show obviously limits the musicians’ freedom to develop their own versions of the late ’50s music: their job is to replicate, not reinterpret,and for the most part they do this very well indeed, with the music virtually indistinguishable from the originals. Solos, small groups and big bands all sound superb. And there’s no shortage of it.

Alan Janes’ script is fairly ordinary it would be orphaned without the music but serves the purpose of the show. As is usual when biography is dramatised, actual events are condensed and amalgamated to simplify the telling. But absent are the darker and more seedy elements of the story as revealed by recent biographies. Even the historic grottiness and misery of that last tour are whitewashed.

The characters are for the most part one-dimensional, the actors generally doing as well they can with the material. Some stand-outs are Garry Scale as master of ceremonies at the Clearlake gig, interacting with the Lyric Theatre audience who are all persuaded to act as residents of different U.S. regions, and Melvin Carroll as MC of the Harlem band, Apollo.

The first act is given over entirely to the public Buddy Holly or to Buddy at work, with every scene involving performance or recording studios. To emerge clearly is Buddy’s integrity and confidence in his art. He refuses to acquiesce into the country & western genre, as demanded by his first manager and recording studio. He refuses to change his appearance, scoffing at the suggestion that he perform without glasses. “You’ve got as much sex appeal as a telegraph pole,” says his frustrated manager.

His belief in his own talent and his obvious success in developing a musical style appealing to young audiences, quickly win over radio stations and recording studios. He even confronts and overcomes racial prejudice in Harlem.

And it is fascinating to see the representation of Buddy’s quest for novelty and excellence in his sound, and the creative combination of performer and recording engineer. I liked the scene where he discovers a celeste (an instrument whose last hit was the “Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy”) and combines the sound with drummer Jerry Allison slapping his knees to produce the delightful “Everyday”. Later in the show, Buddy’s beautiful ballad to his bride foretells the gentler Lennon-McCartney numbers.

In the early scenes of the second act the personal side of Buddy’s life takes over, with his whirlwind romancing of Maria Elena Santiago after his move to New York. And we see cracks developing in Buddy’s working relationships, resulting in the split between Buddy and the Crickets, as well as the rift with his manager.

But the beat is definitely up. While it would have been a forgivable and indeed expected development for the show to end in tears, the audience is left happy rather than sad, revelling in what Holly achieved rather than mourning his loss.

It is rather eery for the audience to find that we have been transformed into the mid-west dance party audience of Buddy Holly, the Big Boppa and Ritchie Valens (great performances from Elliott Weston and Ricky Rojas) for their last performance on that wintry night in Clear Lake, Iowa on 2nd February, 1959. While blizzards rage outside and we’re warned about driving home safely, Holly and his buddies fill the air with warmth and goodwill.

(Performance seen: 4th March 2001 6pm)

Other views: Paul Galloway (Brisbane News, 7 March), found an “infectious vitality, raucous and celebratory”, Holly “embodying both the excitement and the ephemerality of Fifties youth culture”. Galloway had difficulty with Urbani in the role: instead of the “Buddy of popular imagination, gawky and bespectacled, we have the tall, muscular and pretty Craig Urbani” more like Clark Kent than Buddy Holly. Des Partridge (Courier- Mail, 26 Feb) praised the “uncanny recreation of the Holly sound”, the 34 songs in the show providing “a musical feast for the faithful fans, and the show has been made even bouncier this time around. … Buddy has pumped life back into the Lyric Theatre, which has been empty for too long.” Lucinda Shaw (Time Off, 7 March) considered Buddy “fun, safe, mainstream entertainment that has understandably enjoyed worldwide success”: while there “might be some holes in the show” for die-hard Holly fans, “the integrity of Urbani in the key role and the ability of most of the supporting actors/band is antidote enough”.

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Sat 17th February 2001)