Review of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story

Haywood Arts Regional Theatre (HART) joins the growing list of theatres in the area to offer a “jukebox musical” in a prominent place on the main stage docket. Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, co-written by Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson and backed by none other than Paul McCartney (who owns the rights to Buddy Holly’s music), began in 1989 on London’s West End, and has been produced at theatres worldwide ever since. In short, it’s been a hit, and the HART audience’s palpable enthusiasm on opening night made it clear why. Holly’s music just makes you want to dance — any old way you please.

That was the point of early rock ‘n roll, of course, and it’s what made the music so subversive during its rise in the mid-50s. It not only seemed to stir up the youth in an indecent way, but even more alarmingly, it seemed to do so across racial divides. Buddy Holly is a significant figure in this regard: like Elvis Presley, he was perceived to be playing “colored” music. When he and his band, The Crickets, showed up to perform at the Harlem’s Apollo Theatre in 1957, the audience was expecting to see African Americans. Instead, they got a geeky white kid from Lubbock, Texas.

There’s material for a good story here. The fact that most jukebox musicals trouble themselves little or not at all with story is either their greatest weakness or evidence of an admirable lack of pretension. I suppose it depends on what kind of experience you go to the theatre hoping to find. Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story will appeal to anyone who really just likes the music (and the music, under Kristen Dominguez’s direction, is undoubtedly the best part of the show). In terms of story, don’t be mislead by the show’s title: the most it offers is a string of incidents on which to hang the songs.

But certainly the greatest challenge for shows that center on the portrayal of star performers like Buddy Holly is that the lead actor has to capture the very thing that made the star a star in the first place: irresistible stage charisma and stunning original talent. That’s pretty hard to do. I’m reminded of Will Smith’s portrayal of the title character in the recent film, Ali. Smith is a gifted actor, but Muhammad Ali in his prime was a genius of the body, and beautiful to watch. No amount of cinematic trickery can make Smith’s footwork look like Ali’s. No one’s footwork looks like Ali’s.

Despite what amounts then to a losing proposition, Mark Jones does an admirable job portraying Holly. He lacks Holly’s skill on the guitar, as well as the man’s relaxed, serpentine physicality, but he’s a strong singer with a charming stage presence, and he handles Holly’s signature vocal “hiccup” with aplomb. But the production does Jones and the audience a disservice by occasionally having snippets of actual Holly recordings play over the sound system. Not only does this break the spell of the live music, but it forces the audience to compare Jones’s voice with the original.

Apart from the occasional four-letter word and mild sexual innuendo, the show is pretty wholesome stuff. The all-local cast finds many moments of real human connection, and they seem to be enjoying themselves immensely while doing so. It’s true that some of the scenes set in the recording studio tend to drag, but that’s hardly the actors’ fault. How dramatic can one expect the technical minutiae of working out a drum lick or “laying down tracks” to really be?   

One of the show’s highlights is certainly the electrifying performance of Trevor Perry as Fats Domino. Perry (whose bio, sadly, seems to have been left out of the program) is not only a gifted and passionate singer, but he exudes a confidence on stage that is far beyond what must be his years. In a pastel pink tuxedo, he is unstoppable. Strother Stingley and Chris Rodgriguez likewise do impressive work as The Big Bopper and Richie Valens respectively, and Andrea Cody plays Vi Petty with a humble realism that is refreshing amidst the heaps of chewed scenery.

Unfortunately, opening night was marred by more than the usual number of technical issues with lights and sound cues. But the crew has a long run ahead of it, and it is to be expected that they’ll get these problems straightened out in short order.   

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, music and lyrics by various artists, book by Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson. Directed by Steven Lloyd for Haywood Arts Regional Theatre (HART). Music Direction by Kristen Domniguez. Featuring: Mark Jones, Max Pollifrone, Sean Bruce, Roger Magendie, Carl Bredahl, Andrea Cody, Trevor Perry, Laura Gregory, Jessica Blackwell, Strother Stingley, Chris Rodriguez, Alexia Grant, Raymond Yarnutoski. Musicians: Preston Cate, Chris Morgan, Kristen Dominguez, Kevin Young, Hallie Shaeffer, Dr. Wayne Kirby, Dave Bruce. Performances are weekends through October 17, 7:30 p.m. (3 p.m. Sundays), at HART, 250 Pigeon St., Waynesville. Tickets: $10/$20/$22. Reservations: (828) 456-6322.

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