Fort Worth — Oh, boy. No offense to the various Brits and New Yorkers who’ve done a fine job with the title role in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story in the decades since the show’s original 1989 production in London.
But dang it, there’s just something about having a Texas guy take it on.
Better yet, it rocks.
Fresh-faced newcomer Andy Christopher—who looks uncannily like Holly once he puts on those glasses—blows the house down with his convincing portrayal of the late, lamented rock legend in Casa Mañana’s season-ending production. Maybe, baby, this is a Buddy who ought to have a go at English audiences, who seem to have an unquenchable thirst for Holly, Holly, and more Holly. (The musical ran for about 12 years in London, and U.K. tours abound.) Give ‘em a Texan, and see what happens.
Full disclosure: I haven’t met Christopher, but know some of this East Texas boy’s Fort Worth kin. His family, as the program notes, runs “from Tyler to Lubbock” and points in between. Christopher trained as a singer, and was spotted several years ago at auditions for the show in Lubbock—where Buddy Holly’s nephew Eddy Weir (plus a London musical director, John Banister) gave him a crash course in playing guitar à la Holly. Christopher has since played the role for a national tour and at several regional theaters. After the Casa run ends June 7, he goes into rehearsals for Buddy at The Muny, St. Louis’ famed outdoor summer venue.
Lanky and fair-skinned, with a mop of dark hair and a contagious grin, Christopher plays up the humor and edge in British writer Alan Janes’ script for Buddy. From the get-go, this is a kid who knows the sound he’s after, and he won’t be buffaloed by music “experts” at home, in Nashville, even in New York, who want him to play something else. It’s “my music, my way”—or back to his daddy’s tiling business in Lubbock. For a hick from the sticks, he’s impossibly sure of himself.
And Holly’s “my way” style worked, hit after hit, straight up to the end: “That’ll be the Day”… “Ollie Vee”… “Everyday”… “Not Fade Away”… “Oh Boy”… “Peggy Sue”… “Words of Love”… “Maybe Baby”… “True Love Ways”… “Rave On”… and more. Christopher has Holly’s signature vocal sound—with its odd quirks of hiccups and stutters and swooping changes of pitch—down cold, and he’s just as good on sweet ballads as he is with the ravers. It’s hard to pick favorites, but standout numbers include a smoking “(Rock Around With) Ollie Vee” and “Not Fade Away” plus an endearing version of “True Love Ways” sung to Holly’s young wife, Maria Elena (played delicately by Addie Morales).
Edward T. Morris’ set design has a ‘50s TV game show quality, but it works—two stacks of boxes, peppered with old radio station call letters, become recording studios and sound booths, flanking Buddy’s band at center stage. Tammy Spencer’s costumes are a treat, from over-the-top country costumes to sleek suiting for Buddy and the Crickets.
If it feels sometimes like this is biography on speed, remember that Holly (though he couldn’t know it) was rushing through an entire musical career in just a few short years. Already a seasoned performer by the age of 16, Holly’s major recording career lasted from February 1957 to February 1959. Director Casey Hushion keeps the breakneck speed of events lively and organized, as actors rush around doubling and tripling in smaller—but often crucial—roles.
Paul D. Taylor and Cheryl Allison score as early rock producer Norm Petty and his piano-banging wife Vi, who nurture Holly’s earliest recordings. Petty gets a fair shake in this script; he’s sometimes painted as a financial villain in Holly’s life, but actually was a huge help as Buddy’s best co-lyricist and a savvy producer who knew a fresh sound—and how to get it on vinyl.
Matt Allen is an energetic bridge character as “HiPockets” Duncan, a Lubbock DJ who picks up on Buddy’s talent early. He anchors the plot, grabbing Buddy for radio interviews as he flashes through Lubbock and keeping us up to date on what’s happening in his life.
Adrianna Hicks as Apollo theater performer Marlena makes Casa’s dome quiver with a rousing “Shout” performed with the energetic Troy Valjean Rucker; Steve Gagliastro’s range of voices (as a country singer, an East Coast DJ and a New York record man) is a hoot; Sam Weber as Cricket “Joe B.” plays the bass on his back, upside down, and in more than a few other positions; and Nikko Kimzin blasts us back with a La Bamba that might have made Ritchie Valens think about kicking it up a notch.
Despite an invitation from Casa president Wally Jones, there wasn’t much dancing in the aisles on opening night…but that’s because face it, y’all, the kids of the 1950s are too old for that stuff now. But the audience clearly was grabbed by the music, clapping and bopping in the seats, having fun watching today’s teens get into the sound—and looking sideways at the oldest folks, who might have been those “rock is the devil’s music” moms and dads who gave us such grief back in the day.
In London’s The Telegraph, Buddy Holly biographer Philip Norman wrote recently about Holly’s never-ending influence: “In the genes of almost every band [since], Buddy Holly has been there.” Paul McCartney and John Lennon missed Holly’s one Liverpool gig in 1958, but saw him on British TV. He inspired them to write and perform their own material, but Holly songs were a regular part of the Beatles club performances in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The Beatles name is a riff on Holly’s backup band The Crickets, and The Rolling Stones first great cover song was of Holly’s “Not Fade Away” in 1964. “Listen to any new release,” Norman quotes Keith Richards. “Buddy will be in it somewhere. His stuff just works.”
So rave on, Buddy; we’ll keep listening ‘til they carry us out feet first…and probably play your music at the funeral.