Pretty much anyone who attends Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story knows how it ends even before the musical’s first note plays: with a fatal plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959, now recalled, thanks to Don McLean, as the Day the Music Died. Which makes it all the more poignant to watch Holly, played marvelously by the effervescent Kieren McCabe in the new Marriott Lincolnshire production, zipping through the preceding couple of years like he somehow knows he’s living on borrowed time.
During that whirlwind period, from the age of 19 when Holly and his Crickets leave Lubbock, Texas, we follow the singing-songwriting prodigy as he first attempts to cut records with Decca in Nashville before alighting to Clovis, New Mexico, for a fruitful creative run at Norman Petty’s recording studio, and finally settling in New York City, where Holly meets his future wife, Maria Elena, at the office of his music publisher and gets engaged to her five hours later, and then conceives their only child a few months before heading off on the winter tour with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper that seals his fate, Whew!
Like the man himself, the show doesn’t get bogged down in the day-to-day happenings of Holly’s tragically brief adult life, giving us just enough of a glimpse to conclude that he was driven by the creative impulse, he was a straight-shooting perfectionist, and he had a somewhat cocky but always serious impulse to have things his way, whether buying thicker frames when told he shouldn’t perform in glasses to telling his publisher’s receptionist, “I’m going to marry you” within minutes of meeting her–and then doing it.
Wisely, this show, like Holly, is all about the music. Even fans of the man’s work may find themselves once again in awe of how many iconic songs he wrote and recorded in that brief burst of creative energy from 1956 through 1958. Of course there’s “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue” and “Everyday.” But there are also “Oh Boy,” “Maybe Baby,” “True Love Ways” and other hummable hits. (That list includes “It’s So Easy,” which unfortunately does not get a live showcase here.)
Holly isn’t mentioned much these days, but his music was hugely influential on popular music of the 1960s and beyond. The Rolling Stones covered his “Not Fade Away” as the A-side of their first U.S. single in 1964 and opened their concerts with the rave-up for many years. And that other big British Invasion band, the Beatles? Their name was inspired by the Crickets. No kidding. And then, of course, there’s the 1971 hit “American Pie,” in which McLean sings about how he could “still remember how that music used to make me smile” in an anthem so long it took up both sides of a 45 rpm single.
So it’s wonderful to see Buddy Holly getting his due in this engaging, rollicking jukebox musical where the actors also play all the instruments live onstage, giving the proceedings an extra bit of zing. Strong supporting performances include Molly Hernández as Maria Elena, a sweet-natured, energetic match for Holly; Alex Goodrich as father figure producer Norman Petty; and Melanie Brezill and Marcus Terell, as Apollo Theatre performers who turn in a show-stopping rendition of “Shout” right before the Crickets win over the legendarily discerning black audience at the Harlem music shrine.
One minor quibble: Although the depiction of the fateful final concert in Iowa is true to what Holly was playing at that point, it would have been nice to have one or two of his most legendary numbers inserted into that musical sequence. Giving the Big Bopper (an enjoyably hammy David Stobbe) a “Chantilly Lace” showcase and having Valens (Jordan Arredondo, having lots of fun playing the teen heartthrob) rip through “La Bamba” cries out for the star of the show to close out with one of his biggest hits as well.
But this is a big-hearted, high-energy production in which even folks who’ve never heard of Holly likely will find his music affecting and infectious. These pop and rockabilly gems will shine on long after everyone has forgotten the man behind the music.
Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story runs through August 13 at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire.
For a full roundup of reviews of this show, visit Theatre in Chicago.
Photo by Liz Lauren