REVIEW BY CARY GINELL
Fifty-six years ago, Buddy Holly, who was, with Elvis serving in the army, the reigning King of Rockabilly, died in a plane crash along with two other rock pioneers, disc jockey-turned one-hit-wonder J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Tex-Mex teen idol Ritchie Valens. The fascination with Holly’s brief life (he died at 22) has persisted ever since. A 1978 motion picture biography made a star out of Gary Busey for his riveting performance as Holly, but rock historians, including one Paul McCartney, who since acquired Holly’s publishing rights, reviled the film for its inaccuracies. The result was Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, the first in a long line of “jukebox musicals” that made its debut in 1989. Theater League’s regional production of Buddy just completed its run at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, and despite the show’s excellent musical content, we can see why it didn’t have a long stay on Broadway.
The main problem with the show is that other than the plane crash, for which Holly is unfortunately known as much as for his litany of hits during his brief career, there isn’t much drama or passion to make for an interesting story. The outline of Holly’s life is depicted using one cliche after another. You’ve seen it all before: the narrow-minded record executive, the maverick indy record producer, accusations of playing black-sounding music on a white radio station, the over-protective mother, the distracting young wife, spur-of-the-moment recording studio tricks, and so on. But for all its faults, Buddy was still the first stage musical to do a profile of an artist’s work, surrounding his music with a biographical timeline.
The story traces Holly’s life from his time as a kid with a dream in small-town Lubbock, Texas, to the bright lights of New York and the top of the charts, only to have his life snuffed out on an icy cold night in February, the iconic “Day the Music Died,” as singer Don McLean described it in his 1971 hit “American Pie.” The show does a good job in the recording studio scenes, first, where a Decca Records mogul (based on Owen Bradley) dismisses Holly as a no-talent who won’t play by his Nashville Sound rules, and then in Norman Petty’s independent studio in Clovis, New Mexico, where Holly is given the latitude to utilize his natural musical instincts, such as having Petty’s wife Vi play the accompaniment for his song “Everyday” on a studio celeste, having Petty double-track his vocals, renaming the song “Cindy Lou” for Allison’s girlfriend, “Peggy Sue,” and so on.
The strongest thing about this production of Buddy is the music, especially Todd Meredith in the title role. Meredith looks the part without appearing to be a cartoonish clone of Holly, something that would have been easy to do, given Holly’s nasal Texas twang, trademark horn-rimmed glasses, quirky singing style, and jelly-leg stage movements. Meredith comes by it naturally; he readily admits being a musician more than an actor. Meredith seems to be channeling Holly’s music through his own musical talent, and it appears organic and not mannered. Similarly, the Crickets: Logan Farine as drummer Jerry Allison and Bill Morey as bassist Joe B. Mauldin, perform well and deliver credible acting.
The key role of producer Norman Petty is played by Nathan Douglass, but the character is basically colorless; it would have been more effective had more of Petty’s personality been instilled into his character, as was done with Sun Records maven Sam Phillips in Million Dollar Quartet. As Petty’s wife Vi, MaryAnn DiPietro seems like a character out of a Carol Burnett comedy sketch rather than Norman’s partner, co-founder of his studio, and a talented musician in her own right. Jenny Stodd is effective as Holly’s Puerto Rico-born wife, who Holly proposes to while on their first date.
Act I goes through Holly and the Crickets’ rise to stardom, told through the words of various disc jockeys announcing his records and activities. In Act II, much of the stage time is devoted to two concerts: Holly’s first New York appearance, at the famed Apollo night club in Harlem, where Holly and his band are comically assumed to be black, and at the fateful Winter Dance Party show in Clear Lake, Iowa, which proved to be Holly’s last performance. Dominating the second half with these two concerts was an astute move by show creator/writer Alan Janes, because by this time, the story had lost its steam, and other than a tense scene where Holly abandons Petty and the Crickets and goes out on his own, there wasn’t much else to tell. The Clear Lake concert is the best part of the show, with rambunctious performances by Mike Brennan as The Big Bopper and Eddie Maldonado as Ritchie Valens, singing their signature songs, respectively, “Chantilly Lace” and “La Bamba.” The anticipated announcement of the stars’ deaths early the next morning is handled respectfully by a brief radio announcement, after which Holly and the ensemble emerge for two encores, including Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode.”
Before the show’s original 1989 run, Paul McCartney vetted the authenticity of the facts portrayed in the story, however, Holly fans will still notice some inaccuracies and omissions. In one, Holly and the Crickets appear as a group in the opening scenes, although in truth, Holly didn’t form the band until after his first recording session with Nashville studio musicians. Decca Records is depicted as a “country label” not interested in rock ‘n’ roll, despite the fact that Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” was a million selling smash for Decca only the year before Holly’s initial session for the label. At the Winter Dance Party, Allison and Mauldin are still shown in the band, backing up Holly, when they had already split up with him and remained behind in Clovis. Although the notorious coin flip between Valens and guitarist Tommy Allsup (played by Sean A. Riley) resulted in Valens winning the ill-fated final seat in the airplane, J. P. Richardson also could have escaped death, had he not had the flu and convinced Holly’s bass player, a young Waylon Jennings, to give up his seat so he wouldn’t have to ride in the freezing school bus the band was going to use to get to their next gig. Richardson’s reason for being on the plane nor his bout with the flu, were not dealt with at all in the show.
Aside from these few quibbling points, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story remains an entertaining, although thinly drawn account of the life of one of the most influential artists in rock ‘n’ roll history.