Billy Buckett – A Rock and Roll Love Story (Footlights Theatrical Inc)
Logan Entertainment Centre
May 16 – 19
It’s post-war Britain and Mr Cool, Billy Buckett (Stephen Dorrington) is rocking more than just his double denim look as lead singer of the small-town rock ‘n’ roll band, The Asteroids; the young singer/songwriter dreams of fame, fortune and mass adoration with his trusty old guitar Lizzy by his side. That is until he meets and falls in love with Jan (played with considerable charm by Lauren Lee Innis-Youren), who longs to break away from her over protective father Arthur (Ian Maurice). Drama arises when the young lovers are torn apart and fame sees Billy’s long-held dreams coming true. This is the story of “Billie Buckett”, an original 1950s inspired musical by Jay Turner, whose big sounds are like those of a jukebox musical, but of an era rather than a musical act… an era when, for example, it was ok to sing of how ‘A Girl is Like a Car’.
The show is jam-packed with original musical numbers that reflect the time when Britain was feeling the impact of American rock and roll and establishing its own popular music culture in lead-up to the British Invasion cultural phenomenon of the mid-1960s. While they are tuneful and melodic, however, the 20 musical numbers could be edited down a little in number to allow more opportunity for the most memorable ones to resonate; some especially early songs seem superfluous as rather than playing a role in how the story is told and moving the plot forward, they serve instead to reinforce character aspects already revealed or setup late reprises. While this gives all of the primary characters a song of their own, a few less numbers could also allow for more audience investment in the emotional core of the story through the main couple’s swift love story.
The largely rockabilly style soundtrack hits its straps though by midway through Act One with the sentimental and romantic ‘Tender is the Night’ with Dorrington and Innis-Youren in duet. Indeed, while the songs all showcase the different sounds of the ‘50s era, it is the slower, more wistful numbers that work the best. Allison Nipperess, who stars as Jan’s visiting friend Maureen is another particularly strong vocalist, as showcased in her ‘Feather on the Wind’ solo, sung in surprise of her feelings for mechanic Big Ted (Douglas Rumble). Unfortunately, though, shifting sound levels feedback and missed mic cues plague many early scenes and at times some songs’ lyrics are difficult to decipher underneath the loud live band’s (particularly percussion) sounds. But in contrast, there are some impressive ensemble production numbers as the show progresses.
There are also many clever moments at the core of the show’s spirited heart. Punny humour peppers Act One and Sammy Gee as Brian and Jermia Turner as Shirley, are excellent in the exaggerated comedy of their character roles. And kudos must go to the entire cast for their varied but equally spot-on English accents. Dorrington and Innis-Youren shine as central couple Billy and Jan. Their vocals and characterisation are spot-on in the pivotal roles. Innis-Youren, in particular, has an era-evocative voice that is flawlessly showcased in Act Two’s opening number ‘Mr Cool’, in which an isolated Jan shares her steadfast faith in Billy.
Supporting cast members offer some appropriately understated performances too. In particular, as Jan’s mother Helen, Linda Hall is wonderful as a woman being torn between loyalty to the grand plans of her self-made businessman husband and desire to see her daughter’s dreams of happiness fulfilled. And Allison Nipperess is splendid as the strong-willed, free-spirited biker Maureen, particularly in strut about the stage in leather pants and jacket.
Costumes are evocative of the era, which adds to the colour and movement of the work and complex choreography enhances ensemble numbers like ‘Restless’, which tells of how there is nothing to do in the town. Staging also works well to show off the accomplished live band.
In a landscape that often seems dominated by West End and Broadway blockbusters, leaving little room for new works to break through, “Billy Buckett” stands tall as a show that could. After its previous sold out seasons and acclaim, it is brilliant to have it bringing its ‘50s fabulousness back in what is mostly a reunion of its earlier cast and creatives. While, like most musicals, it has its plot holes and the preview that reviewers were invited to consider was not the show at is best, the work is clearly full of heart in its capture of the character of its era, easily drawing audiences into it energetic, entertaining world.
Photos c/o – Vincent Swift