Review: Buddy – the Buddy Holly Story – South Africa 2023- Stupendous! Sophisticated, vibrant and immersive production- a musical theatre treat – grand entry back into musical theatre – after the pandemic brought the curtain down on big international musicals

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story

When: Artscape Opera house March 28 to April 16, 2023, and the Teatro at Montecasino from April 22 until May 28, 2023
Tickets: R150 to R500 are available through  
Booking link:  
Director: Nick Winston
Set and costume designs: Niall Griffin
Resident director: Anton Luitingh
Resident choreographer: Duane Alexander
Musical direction: Wessel Odendaal
Lighting design: Oliver Hauser

Ensemble includes: Bethany Dickson, Chad Baai, Gianluca Gironi, Thoko Jiyane, Che-Jean Jupp, Gerard Van Rooyen, Koketso Mere, Gabriela Dos Santos, Nic Sedgewick, Virtuous Kandemiri, Sindiswa Ndlovu, Stephan Bezuidenhout and Morgan Marshall.  
Producer: Pieter Toerien Productions  

Stupendous! There is a list of rave-lines in the programme for Buddy – the Buddy Holly Story – South Africa 2023: Sensational, stunning, awesome etc, The award winning hit musical is on at Artscape until April 16 and then then transfers to Joburg, to Pieter Toerien’s Teatro at Montecasino (April 21 to May 28). I will add ‘stupendous’ to the raves. Buddy South Africa 2023- is all of that – exhilarating, dazzling, joyful – awesomely excellent. At the helm of Buddy, is international director (and choreographer), Nick Winston (UK) and there is an illustrious team of South African creatives and an immensely talented cast – from South Africa. Buddy showcases the incredible talent that we have in this country. Jethro Tait evokes a powerful Buddy- who died tragically at age 22- in a plane crash.   Chad Baai portrays Ritchie Valens (17 when he died in the same plane crash). This juke box musical conjures up a vivid portrait of the milieu and the influence of the music by Buddy and his cohort – which continues today. The glossy programme includes testimonials by the likes of John Lennon, Keith Richards, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. They were all influenced and inspired by Buddy Holly. Bob Dylan mused that Buddy “intertwined” country-western, rock ‘n roll and rhythm and blues and “infused [it] into one genre, one brand”. Songs featured in Buddy, include signature numbers such as That’ll Be the Day, Peggy Sue, La Bamba and Johnny B. Goode.

Niall Griffin’s production design-is a wow. He has designed the set AND costumes. The production design is seamless and seemingly effortless. The aesthetics are the 50s but is beautifully rendered – sharp edged, crisp, sleek. I say “seemingly effortless” because, powering this production is an automated show deck. In a recent conversation, Griffin explained that the show deck is a layer, laid onto the stage floor, which is rigged with the bits which move across the stage, with precision. Often, this is done with an operator, in the wings. The show deck in Buddy is fully automated and was conceptualised and custom built for the South African production of Buddy. It is an engineering and artistic marvel. I was fascinated by the way the set moves – people and props move – subtly. It provides depth and a dimensionality to the production- effortlessly- I use the word again – with the cast gliding across the stage and everything materialising, like magic.

There are many newly graduated students in Buddy- including students from LAMTA and the Waterfront Theatre School. Chad Baai is a graduate from the Waterfront Theatre School. Six of the cast are from LAMTA (Luitingh Alexander Musical Theatre Academy), in Cape Town. It was particularly special to watch Buddy as I watched student productions, flying the flag for musical theatre during the pandemic and lockdown, when it was not commercially viable to stage big musicals so student musical theatre kept the flame alive. It is remarkable to consider that Gianluca Gironi who is currently completing his 3rd year of study at LAMTA –plays the drums as part of Buddy Holly’s band, The Crickets. I was wowed by Gironi in LAMTA’s Beatles show.

The principals of LAMTA  Anton Luitingh and Duane Alexander are part of the creative team, behind Buddy. Luitingh is resident director and Alexander is resident choreographer and they have rendered a finely tuned, polished production which is hyper entertaining and which also conjures up a vivid portrait of Buddy’s influence on music. I loved seeing Fleur du Cap Theatre Award winning, Bethany Dickson back on stage – as VI Petty and Mary Lou Sokoloff (the wife of Norman Petty- Buddy’s manager/recording engineer). These bonsai roles deserve an award nomination – delicious. A delight is Gabriela Dos Santos as the wife of Buddy – fabulous characterisation. She trained at Oakfields College – another wow for South Africa musical theatre tertiary training. There is not a lot of stage time allotted to Dickson and Dos Santos and they bring a huge buzz to these bonsai roles. Not only can they act and sing, but they can also dance- veritable triple threats. When not in their character roles, they form part of the ensemble.

May, I just say, that I want the dresses, designed by Niall Griffin. I think that they should have a pop-up shop for the clothes. Again, as he has done with the set design, Griffin brings a refinement to the clothes and he has delivered an aesthetic which is highly articulated –sans 50s schmaltz. The full skirts and waists are there, hard edged textiles and of course Buddy’s signature spectacle frames but it does not veer into mawkishness and obviously ‘vintage’. It feels timeless as it riffs off the 50s. The dancing in Buddy is energetic, highly charged (bravo Duane Alexander for choreography) and Griffin’s clothes – fabric, cut, flow – also facilitate the movement as the performers dance, swish and twirl. These are costumes designed to move. Griffin’s costumes and set are charged by Oliver Hauser’s lighting plot – which enhances the colours and textures – but again it is restrained and not garish.

Watching Buddy and I felt that I was at a Buddy Holly concert- watching the band play- now.  It feels as if we are the audience. We are immersed in the story and music. We are along for the ride as Buddy breaks away from his manager and band. We are there as he falls in love and follows his dreams. We are there, when it all comes to an abrupt end. It is an immersive experience.

Wessel Odendaal has accomplished a fine double act. He is music supervisor/director and plays in the on-stage band (keys). I loved the way we get the seamless (there is the word again) interweaving of Buddy Holly and the Crickets, with the on-stage band. It is wonderful to see the return of big international music theatre on stage in Sour Africa. Buddy- the Buddy Holly Story  (first staged in 1989 in London) is a classic juke-box musical which has received huge acclaim in its over three decades, on the musical theatre boards and here we are being treated to a crisp, sophisticated and immersive production. Buddy is a grand entry back into musical theatre – after the pandemic brought the curtain down on big international musicals. Do not miss.

✳ Production photography by Gustav Klotz. Images supplied.