By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
“You have about as much sex appeal as a telegraph pole,” an old-timey Texas country radio DJ tells a nerdy, bespectacled young man with rock n’ roll on his mind at the outset of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, currently reminding Mayfield audiences that it’s so easy to fall in love.
Citing the young man’s grievous offence against community musical standards, Hipockets Duncan’s sage advice to the offender is to get a real job, in the tiling biz with his brothers. Ah yes, career counselling at its finest, like pushing the young upstart from Stratford to forget about theatre and get settled in his dad’s glove-making operation.
Anyhow, that was 1956. And the young man with the guitar and geek glasses, “a stubborn son of a gun,” held his ground. Soon Hipockets would be calling Buddy Holly “our Buddy” in hopes of a fleeting interview. And as the world knows, the gangly son of Lubbock would be a bona fide rock ’n’ roll icon by the time he died. Stardom happened in awfully short order. Less than three years later, in 1959, age 22, Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash — just 18 months after the release of his prophetically named first hit single That’ll Be The Day.
But as it was with Patsy Cline, who occupied the Mayfield stage earlier this fall (A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline), icons don’t give up the ghost. They rave on from beyond the grave, and keep the music coming. (And in the case of Patsy and Buddy they throw in a warning against flying in small aircraft in bad weather in the American hinterland.)
Created by the English writer Alan Janes in 1989 for London’s West End (where it ran for 12 years), Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is something of a prototype for the jukebox musical: a crowd-pleasing amplitude of hit songs, minimal narrative interference (luckily) beyond the requisite “why don’t we get you boys in the studio?”
Which actually suits a speeded-up bio like the one belonging to the gangly groundbreaker who played a major role in transforming American musical culture in the ‘50s. Buddy’s up against the Southern white country musical establishment that finds rock ’n’ roll too sexy and, in a nutshell, too Black. But in Buddy’s story, the status quo doesn’t have much time to put up a continued resistance. Soon, very soon, Buddy and the Crickets will be in New York, amazing the audience at the Apollo in Harlem — by being white.
The biographical clock is ticking: that rickety plane in the wintry Iowa boondocks awaits on the tarmac of time. Holly’s wife Maria Elena (Nayeli Abrego) had it right in her bad dreams. Take the bus, Buddy, take the bus.
And as for the West Texas family from which the rock ’n’ roll star, apparently a progressive in racial terms, emerged? Their only presence in the show is Ma’s voice on the phone, exhorting Buddy to remember to eat.
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, one of the Mayfield’s most popular shows ever, is back in a new version after a decade. And with it, a song list of 30 hits, Peggy Sue, Maybe Baby, True Love Ways, It’s So Easy To Fall In Love, Every Day, among them. And, crucially, a 13-member cast led by the very appealing Tyler Check as Buddy and Alex Panneton and Even Stewart as the Crickets. They perform the songs live, assisted by the ensemble: the signature sound (under John Banister’s musical direction), no air guitar, no sleight of hand. The musical values, as always at the Mayfield, are high.
As played by Check, Buddy is both the nerd charmer and an adamantine trailblazer, who says repeatedly that he wants “to play my music my way.” (and in more fulsome moments, which sound a bit like the author speaking, “for me, my music is always evolving; staying here is like standing still”). He expertly, apparently easily, captures the Holly vocal signatures, the light timbre, the little hiccups and slides, and the star’s long-legged physicality. Christine Bandelow’s choreography is apt and atmospheric.
The scenes that glue the songs together are a sort of biographical checklist, with a few additional interpolations for period colour (the Snowbirds, a girl trio, break in to sing advertisements of the time). It’s the jukebox, not the drama, that counts.
The Act II highlight, and the climax of the evening, is a kind of re-creation of the fateful “winter dance party” at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on Feb. 2, 1959. Holly is joined by fellow stars Ritchie Valens (Alex Panneton) and the Big Bopper (Trevor Patt, with Sheldon Elter taking over Nov. 30 to Jan. 23).
It’s the night before ‘the day the music died’. And, in addition to the eerie way that every song gives off a fateful vibe (underscored by a string of comments about the weather), it’s a big sound/ big finish to an evening that gives us a short life as a long songbook — and a remarkably well performed one.
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story
Theatre: Mayfield Dinner Theatre
Written by: Alan Janes
Directed by: Van Wilmott
Musical Director: John Banister
Starring: Tyler Check, Trevor Patt, Alex Panneton, Evan Stewart, Nayeli Abrego
Running: through Jan. 23
Tickets: mayfield theatre.ca, 780-483-4051