Garland — Responding to a request by the National Endowment for the Arts, the Recording Industry Association of America and Scholastic, Inc., a diverse group of people selected the top songs of the 20th century which best reflected the American heritage and culture. Fifth on that list was “American Pie” by Don McLean. His 1971 release was an expression of his disillusionment with the state of society and what had been lost. For McLean, the music of Buddy Holly was an important part of that forgotten past. “I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride, but something touched me deep inside the day the music died.” This five-word phrase caught on and has come to signify Buddy Holly’s music as a part of Americana.
Director Dennis Canright and musical director Scott A. Eckert have assembled a terrific cast for Garland Civic Theatre’s production of Alan Janes’ Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story. It is a musical requiring a cast of actors who are also musicians. They found the right people and they don’t miss a beat, thrilling with their voices and instrumental skill. Everyone knows the story ends tragically, yet there is no sadness during the telling of the story, only fun.
Ian Mead Moore joined the creative team as Scott’s assistant musical director, or so he thought. In an interview with TheaterJones, Moore describes the moment when he asked the team who they had in mind to play Buddy and they turned to look at him. Moore discussed his concern about playing such an icon in that person’s home state for audiences that will not be forgiving about the sound and feel of the music. Moore need not have worried. By appearance and sound, he is believable as Buddy Holly.
We see the three-year period between January 1956 and February 1959 in four locations: Lubbock, Texas (Holly’s home), Clovis, New Mexico, New York City, and Clear Lake, Iowa. Canright’s efficient set design works well for all four locations without a lot of set piece rotation, helped by the fact that recording studios and radio station studios at that time looked basically the same.
Local radio station DJs wielded a lot of influence and power within the music industry during Holly’s time. Hipockets Duncan (Phil Gosselin) becomes exasperated with his friend who uses air-time on a country music station to introduce his rock music. Hip pockets would have been happier if Buddy had followed the example of the Hayriders, portrayed by Jonathan Garcia, Colin Philips, Jenny Dunne and Erin McGrew. But Buddy had a different interest and with this buddies, Jerry Allison (Jaren Lorenzo) and Joe B. Mauldin (Bill Zauner), performed as Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The trio sign a recording contract with Norman Petty (Ashley Collum) which proves to be a lucrative partnership for them which produces hit records and a national tour. Petty’s wife, Vi (Erin McGrew) is actively engaged in her husband’s business, occasionally filling in on piano during recording sessions.
A performance at the Apollo Theatre was part of the tour schedule. Holly and the Crickets were apprehensive with good reason.
During the 1950s, rock ’n’ roll was considered “colored people’s music” and therefore to be avoided. Very early on, Buddy’s DJ friend who served a white country music fan base, had cautioned him about performing this style but Buddy had not been deterred. Now, he was entering the celebrated Apollo Theatre in Harlem, a very different situation, fraught with different tensions due to the inequities in the system.
The musical acknowledges and references this context, that the success and popularity of rock ’n’ roll had been achieved on the backs of black people whose aspirations were limited by segregation. Too often some white performers were appropriating the music without attributing the original composers and reaping financial reward for a style they neither created nor nurtured. Buddy Holly and the Crickets arrived at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem during this time of rancor, distrust and in some cases, unrest.
On the program they followed black performers, lead vocalist Marlena (Sandy Young) and four unnamed performers, The Tritones portrayed by Tracy Pullin, Damond Cobin, Brandon Baker and Anthony Holmes. Fears were allayed. The audience responded positively to the music.
While in New York, Holly meets and quickly marries Maria Elena Santiago (Sarah Garcia) who was working as the receptionist for his music publisher. After Buddy married, things changed and his professional relationship with the Crickets ended. The second act of the musical focuses on the last leg of Buddy’s tour as a solo performer, working on the same billing with Big Bopper (Colin Philips) and Richie Valens (Jonathan Garcia).
There is not a weak spot in this production. The show is visually interesting because of Theresa Clapper’s clean lighting design and Michael Robinson’s costumes which are delightful. The women moved as if they felt beautiful, always nice to see. Favorite moments were “Shout” (Sandy Young and the Tritones) and “Chantilly Lace” (sung by Colin Philips). “Everyday” and “Oh Boy” were memorable as well.
For a true story with a tragic ending, the Buddy Holly Story is rousing, happy, and warmly entertaining. The music is very much alive.