It was in 1979 that Norman Petty, Buddy Holly’s producer and one-time manager, sold the Buddy Holly music catalog to Paul McCartney, who then supported the idea of a stage musical. McCartney is said to have been concerned with some of the inaccuracies of the 1978 movie version, so the idea of presenting a live, theatrical ‘jukebox musical’ version became hugely appealing.
The end result was Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story and it’s been running in Britain continuously in one form or another since 1989. This past weekend saw the opening of Buddy at Arizona Broadway Theatre, and I dare anyone not to leave this crowd-pleasing, high-energy production without the sound of That’ll be the Day and others still bouncing around in your head.
The show delivers exactly what the title suggests; Buddy tells of how the young bespectacled teenager from Lubbock, Texas became one of the true pioneers of American rock ‘n roll, a story made all the more remarkable when you think that it all happened within the space of eighteen months before Holly’s untimely death in a plane crash.
“Elvis Presley you ain’t,” Holly is told by KDAV radio jock Hipockets Duncan (Dane Agostinis), but Holly is having none of it. “Buddy Holly does things his way,” Holly declares, and the jukebox musical shows us exactly how.
Jared Mancuso plays Holly, and he could not be a more perfect find. With his short, curly hair and thick framed glasses, Mancuso captures not only the look and sound of Buddy Holly but also the spirit of the young rock ‘n roller. It gets to the point where during the musical moments you become so lost in the total illusion of watching Buddy Holly give a performance so complete in every sense of the word you almost forget you’re watching a play. Many performers who have tackled this role in other productions around the country are often cast for their overall look, but the sound merely echoes the original. In this colorful and exciting local production, Mancuso, an accomplished musician as well as an actor, makes the songs come alive in a way that even a tribute band couldn’t achieve. For all sense and purposes, Jared Mancuso is Buddy Holly.
Dan Agostinis is also a standout as DJ Hipockets. There’s a natural manner to his delivery that grounds every scene in which he appears. David Simmons, last seen as Daddy Warbucks in Annie, has a ball as The Big Bopper, relishing every moment and appearing as if he’s having the time of his life doing it. Plus, a special mention to both Chanel Bragg and Mani Cadet who introduce Buddy Holly and The Crickets at the Apollo in Harlem. Their reaction to discovering that the next act on the bill is an all-white band when the audience is expecting black is a genuine highlight of the evening. When Bragg introduces the band then walks off the stage laughing, the moment is priceless.
As is often the case, if there are any problems with the show, it has less to do with ABT’s production and more with the original script as written by Alan Janes. The story is heavily fragmented with scenes that come across more as comic sketches, complete with a punch line that ends with a quick fade to black. It doesn’t help that occasionally some of these scenes are also played broadly for comic effect, making moments based on reality appear more like a sitcom than anything resembling real life. It takes you out of the moment, a style that might explain why the show was never quite the success on Broadway as it has been overseas, but in the end it’s not so much the story of Buddy Holly you’ll remember, it’s the music, and it’s here in the musical performances that Buddy really comes alive with an undeniable energy that practically leaps off the stage and onto your lap.
The show treats us to not one but two lengthy performances of Holly’s material, one on stage at the Apollo which concludes the first act and the second at the final ClearLake concert in Iowa prior to Holly’s fateful crash. Both these scenes display the real reason behind the show; to showcase the music, and it’s in these scenes, under the direction of Damon Dering, that Buddy truly becomes a rock ‘n roll spectacle that can’t fail to win you over. In his short lifetime, Holly made rock ‘n roll a unique, creative force. When Mancuso picks up his guitar, which fortunately for us is about eighty percent of the production, he shows us why.
For more details regarding times, dates and tickets CLICK HERE to go directly to the ABT website.