Fort Worth — Casa Mañana closed its 2015 season with Alan Jane’s Buddy—the Buddy Holly Story. In response to continual requests from patrons, they brought it back to kickstart their 2019-2020 season. Fort Worth’s historic “House of Tomorrow” is again rocking and rolling thanks to the energetic cast assembled by Parker Esse (director and choreographer) and Vonda K. Bowling (music direction).
John Bartenstein has skillfully lit this show which has several locations and levels on stage at a time, often moving quickly, and each requiring different textures. Tammy Spencer has selected costumes which look expensive and which flatter the wearer.
Audiences who enjoyed the 2015 production will see familiar faces from that show in this production too. Andy Christopher who is reprising his role as Buddy Holly has an astonishing resemblance to Buddy when he dons the glasses. Cheryl Allison returns as Vi Petty, indispensable musician-wife of producer and manager Norm Petty, played this time by Steve Gagliastro. He has/had several roles in both productions because his vocal timbre is so versatile, sliding from Norm Petty, to a DJ, to an engineer with Decca, to the lead Hayrider. And he plays a mean trombone.
Allison is wonderful as Vi, a woman who can move from a 50s traditional wife to rock and roll piano and back without missing a beat or getting a curl out of place.
Matt Allen is again playing Hipockets Duncan except in the second act when he becomes the emcee for the concert. Troy Valjean Rucker returns as one of the performers at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, grooving on the tenor sax. He and Trisha Jeffrey turn up the heat as Apollo performers in “Shout.”
Joining the Casa Buddy Holly musical veterans are Taylor Rodriguez who is perfect as Richie Valens, and powerful Jayson Elliott as Big Bopper (also Decca producer and DJ). Big Bopper’s real name was Jiles Perry “Jape” Richardson. He adopted the name Big Bopper to distinguish his rock and roll work from that of his primary job as a radio announcer. He was actually a DJ but that role had not yet materialized during the 50s.
Addie Morales complements Christopher well as Buddy’s wife, Maria Elena. She is natural, appearing so comfortable in her role. It is in act two that we learn about her, and about Buddy’s career shift toward solo performances, leaving the Crickets to pursue their own dreams. The most beautiful moment between Buddy and Maria Elena happens when he sings one of his new songs to her, “True Love Ways.” This is Christopher’s most lyrical moment in the show.
Cameron Cobb is Murray (Jack Daw, Hayrider and DJ), Brian Mathis aiso DJ, and Devin Berg is on autoharp.
Filling out Buddy’s tunes were the Crickets: Jerry Allison on drums (Joe Cosmo Cogen), Joe Mauldin on bass (Benjamin Brown), and David Colston Corris as the fourth Cricket and alto sax player. Cameron Cobb and Brian Mathis join them on guitar for the concert in act two.
The first act of the musical tells the story of Buddy’s swift rise from nowhere to stardom and the people who were instrumental in his career. Act two is actually a wonderful concert designed to reignite the enthusiasm and excitement typically generated by Buddy’s performances.
It is worth the price of admission just to see and hear Elliott’s Big Bopper performance of “Chantilly Lace.” Fabulous.
But even more powerfully than these three the big standout of the production is the Clear Lake Band. They are so fantastic it is easy to forget these are actors who also play musical instruments. Such a tight performance is reflective not only of the performers, but of the musical direction as well.
This Winter Dance Party concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa turned out to be the Buddy’s, the Bopper’s and Valens’ last performance. Clear Lake is where the plane they were taking to their next gig in Fargo crashed.
They were so young: Buddy, 22, Big Bopper, 28 and most tragically, Richie Valens who was only 17.
For all of the joyfulness of this production, one unfortunate shadow interfered. Inexplicably, the emcee in the second act was played as a gay stereotype, one that leap-frogged over broad comedy and landed in the realm of offensiveness. There are situations where playing the stereotype is permissible, but two conditions should be met: it should first be necessary and secondly, well-executed. This characterization was neither.
Otherwise, the performance reviewed was successful. Big sections of the audience were on their feet for much of the second act, clapping, singing and dancing to the music which reminded them of another time when they too were very young.