On “the day the music died”—as Don McLean tagged February 3, 1959, in his hit song “American Pie”—the 22-year-old rock-and-roller Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash that also took the lives of rock stars Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson. Had he lived, Holly would be celebrating his 80th birthday this year, on September 7. Hollywood paid tribute to the bespectacled singer-songwriter with the 1978 biopic The Buddy Holly Story, starring Gary Busey. But the similarly titled 1990 Broadway musical, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, is thought to be a truer depiction of the influential music-maker’s brief life.
An exhilarating production of Buddy is currently playing at Pennsylvania’s rustic Bucks County Playhouse, an illustrious summer stock theater that dates back to 1939. And I can think of no better way to mark Holly’s 80th than by taking in the nostalgic musical energy generated by this production’s remarkable cast. Commonly considered Broadway’s first jukebox musical (a show that takes as its score the oeuvre of a well-known pop music artist or group; think: Mamma Mia! or Jersey Boys), the story traces the events of Holly’s life and culminates with a rafter-raising re-creation of his final concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, a feast of 1950s rock hits that consumes most of the musical’s second act.
Throughout the show, the versatile actors (most of whom take on multiple roles) also provide the entire musical soundtrack, which includes such favorites as “That’ll Be the Day” (Holly), “Chantilly Lace” (The Big Bopper) and “La Bamba” (Valens). They supply not only the vocals, but also all of the instrumental accompaniments. Most impressive, in this regard, are Holly’s backup musicians, the Crickets. In the role of Jerry Allison, the drummer, Zach Cossman proves to be an expert percussionist, as well as an appealing and skillful comic actor. As Joe B. Mauldin, the Crickets’ stand-up bass player, James David Larson executes such inventive, daring maneuvers while playing his instrument—lying on it, tilting it, sitting on it cross-legged, standing atop it, and perching on one leg in its curve with the other leg out behind him à la arabesque—that I was prompted at intermission to ask one of the show’s producers whether the actors were perhaps performing to recorded tracks. I was assured they were not.
While the showiest performance is Karack Osborn’s wildly physical interpretation of The Big Bopper—his Elvis-like knee actions will have you screaming with delight—fans of the title character will certainly appreciate John Dewey’s spot-on portrayal of Holly. He captures not only the visionary artist’s musical stylings, but also the determination, commitment and integrity that make Holly an admirable figure—the kind of guy you don’t always like, but wish you could be like.
Choreographed by Lorin Latarro, the show is spiffily staged and looks as good as it sounds. Adam Koch’s functional turntable set is ravishingly illuminated by lighting designer Gina Scherr, most notably during the final concert scene when she bathes the ensemble in changing rainbow colors, from gentle baby blue to electrifying lime green. With a book by Alan Janes and upbeat direction by Hunter Foster, the production never fails to find the funny aspects in each chapter of Holly’s life. (You’ll enjoy learning how the song “Peggy Sue” got its title.) This makes for a highly amusing evening, and only the treatment of Holly’s death is ungratifying. The moment is too rushed, too minimal—some snowflakes falling in a spotlight, a few beats of silence, then big smiles again and suddenly we’re back into another rousing rock song. A small quibble with an excellent production, to be sure, and yes, I know, the music really didn’t die. Holly left us, but rock and roll hardly skipped a beat.
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is playing at the Bucks County Playhouse, in New Hope, Pennsylvania, through July 16.
Photos by Joan Marcus