‘The Buddy Holly Story’ Rocks!The Show Will Make You Miss the Golden Days of AM Radio
It is interesting that “The Buddy Holly Story,” now being performed by the Ocean Professional Theatre Co., was one of the first hit jukebox musicals – meaning a thin book wrapped around previously released songs – because Holly (originally Charles Hardin Holley) died when he was only 22 years old. He hadn’t lived long enough to fully feed a biopic and, although the skinny, goofy-looking musician had, in his brief career, a dozen Top 100 hits, he had just three Top 10s, and only “That’ll Be the Day” topped the charts.
Oh, there is absolutely no doubt Holly was one of the crown princes of early rock ’n’ roll. In 1986, he was one of the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and in 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him the 13th greatest artist of all time. As OPTC founder, artistic director and director of and performer in this show (as well as in the Broadway original), Steve Steiner wrote in the musical’s Playbill, “Paul McCartney has said of Buddy’s influence on rock and roll ‘that at least the first 40 songs that John and I wrote were directly influenced by Buddy’s guitar style.’” Indeed, legend has it that the members of the Beatles (with, of course, an intentional musical misspelling) picked their band’s name to honor Buddy’s band, the Crickets.
Still, at 58 I can remember only two Holly songs – the aforementioned “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue.” After all, I was barely 4 years of age on Feb. 3, 1959, when Buddy, along with The Big Bopper (real name – J.P. Richardson Jr.) and Ritchie Valens, died in a plane crash after performing at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, the night before. So how many Holly hits would a typical 20-, 30- or 40-year-old be able to hum from memory? And even if all 12 Top 100 Holly hits were performed, they would hardly fill a two-act musical considering most rock ’n’ roll songs in that era were just a couple or few minutes long thanks to the narrow time constraints of AM radio.
So, again, how did book writer Alan Janes pull it off? Well, he quickly encapsulated Holly’s career by introducing him at 19 years of age in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas.
Holly (Todd Meredith, who has made a cottage industry of playing Buddy, considering this is his 13th production in the role) and the Crickets – bassist Joe B. Maudlin (Nathan Yates Douglass) and drummer Jerry Allison (Logan Farine) – want to play rock ’n’ roll. But local DJ and part-time Crickets manager Highpockets Duncan (Dale Given) thinks they should stick to country. Highpockets, however, senses the band and especially its leader are something special. So after the boys travel to Nashville and are once again told to stick with country despite having written “That’ll Be the Day,” he hooks them up with Norman Petty (Patrick Graver), a record producer in, of all places, Clovis, N.M.
Clovis isn’t exactly a musical Mecca, but somehow Buddy and the Crickets and Petty start spitting out hit records, including “That’ll Be the Day” and “Peggy Sue.” Suddenly their music is being heard everywhere around the country, and they even score a gig at the famous Apollo Theater, supposedly being accidently the first all-white group ever booked at the Harlem hotspot (probably historically inaccurate).
Fame – of course – changes everything. Buddy wants the band to be based in New York while Joe and Jerry have no desire to move east, so the group breaks up.
At the same time Buddy falls in love with Maria Elena Santiago (Colleen Roberts), who is a receptionist in the offices of NYC music publisher Murray Deutch (Steiner). We’re talking a true fall-deeply-in-love experience – within five hours after meeting her, Buddy is asking her aunt (Lisa Carlson) for permission to marry.
Wow, talk about potential controversy. A Texan marrying a Puerto Rican in the 1950s? Their marriage wasn’t hidden – Maria travelled with Buddy when he toured – but nor was it publicized (shades of John Lennon’s marriage in 1962 to his first wife, Cynthia, which was kept secret so crazed teen girls would continue to pour their hearts out to him). Anyway, what was marrying a Puerto Rican compared to another rock ’n’ roll pioneer, Jerry Lee Lewis, hitching up with his 13-year-old cousin? But I digress …
Alas, the marriage lasted just six months before Holly was killed in the famous airplane crash that gave birth to Don McLean’s 1971 hit “American Pie.” You know, “the day the music died.”
So, once again, how do you make a two-act musical out of such a brief – if glorious – career, a fast romance and a limited number of recognizable songs?
Here’s how: You start with a couple of country numbers the Crickets were originally forced to perform. Then you move to Clovis and watch them record their classic hits. You then quickly show snippets of DJs from around the country playing Buddy’s songs. Next up – you recap the famous Apollo Theater performances. Finally, after a brief romantic interlude, you conclude with a partial re-creation of the famous Surf Ballroom concert. (The building still exists, with a seating capacity of 2,100 – but you can imagine a million people now claim they were there on the night of Feb. 2, 1959.)
In other words, you toss in a lot of non-Buddy music, including a version of Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers hit “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” by a local band called Jack Daw & the Snowbirds, the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” and Valens’ “La Bamba.” In other words, you make “The Buddy Holly Story” a tribute to early American rock ’n’ roll.
It works! Meredith is good as Buddy Holly. I’ve got to tell you, though, that Emilio Ramos is even better as Ritchie Valens although still not as good as Brennan as The Big Bopper. By the way, before moving on, let me give credit to Given’s understated performance (it could have been overblown) as Highpockets Duncan.
In the end, though, the music, wonderfully sung by the entire cast and performed onstage by God-only-knows how many actors/musicians, steals – as it should – the show. Man, early rock ’n’ roll had energy!
I was talking to an old friend (both in terms of the years we have known each other – about 30 – and in terms of her age – in her 80s) a couple of days ago. She had stopped listening to radio when the big band sound fell out of favor, not having a clue about rock ’n’ roll. She has tickets to this show and, being unfamiliar with the music, is worried she won’t enjoy it.
She will. As will anybody who attends “The Buddy Holly Story,” which will run through Aug. 31 at Barnegat High School’s Bengal Auditorium, located at 180 Bengal Blvd. in Barnegat Township (directions are available online at oceantheatre.org).
Tickets are $35 for adults and $20 for children 12 years of age and younger. They may be purchased online at oceantheatre.org, by phone at 609-312-8306 or at the box office up to an hour before each show. Check the company’s website for exact dates and times of performances.