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“Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story”
Weston Theater Company
703 Main Street | 8 Park Street
July 7th - July16th
Box office: 802-824-5288 or www.westonplayhouse.org
Lena Richard, Matt Cusack, Maggie Hillinbeck, Isaiah Reynolds, Ben Johnson (on drums), Ariana Papleo, Adrian Lopez, Billy Finn, and David Bonanno. Photo by Rob Aft.
If you don’t wanna dance to it, can the music really be rock ’n’ roll?
Not even remotely a headscratcher for Meredith McDonough, director of Weston Theater Company’s “Buddy.” In the production’s always rhythmic, always energetic, always infectiously raucous final scene (yup, that fateful concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 3, 1959, a.k.a. “the day the music died”), the company gets the audience up on its feet. The performers don’t have to ask twice. The whole production is one long, tuneful, fun-filled romp through a playlist that just never quit(s), and the company handily earns that late-in-the-game participation of the other-side-of-the footlights ensemble.
Buddy Holly, who started his musical life as a teenager in his family’s garage in Lubbock, Texas, died at age twenty-two when the small airplane transporting him, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper (J.P. Richardson) from Clear Lake to what was to have been their next gig, went down in a storm. The musical, written by Alan Janes, is largely a workmanlike jukebox affair strung on a simple David and Goliath narrative of youth, talent, and a finger on the pulse of his generation’s musical taste overcoming Lubbock and Nashville, with Goliath wanting Holly and his backup duo, the Crickets, to succumb to the behemoth of C&W. Nope. Even if David’s possession of his crown turns out to be short-lived.
There is nary a weak performance in Weston’s cast of actor/singer/dancer/instrumentalists, and one of the production’s triumphs is how even when working on the periphery of the central action, each performer is worth watching in their own fully present, nuanced right without ever pulling the focus away from whoever is at the mike or engaged in a back-and-forth dialogue of disagreement. (Center/periphery/focus/energy are supported and articulated by Marika Kent’s lighting design.)
Pride of performance place has to go to Billy Finn as the bespectacled Holly. Singing up a storm is only the half of it, as Finn’s Buddy also learns not to shy away from interviews, overcomes an at-first skeptical audience in Harlem (heard backstage before he goes on: “you’re Buddy Holly?” Because, you know sings like he could be Black, plays like he might be Black, writes like he likely is Black, and booked in real life for the gig by Sol Gittler, who assumed he was Black), drops to one knee to propose to the secretary who has stolen his heart at first sight, and spends an astonishing minute in that final Iowa concert scene exploding with heat at the drums just because, well, he can.
Finn is not, however, the only one who can do that kind of shapeshifting. Jason Cohen plays Tommy Allsup, a guitarist added to the original trio when the Crickets start needing more sound. Later Allsup jumps to the piano. And then trombone. Or there’s Maggie Hollinbeck, who opens the show as a competent but forgettable country singer strumming a guitar and crooning a foursquare ballad. She resurfaces as Vi Petty, wife of the Clovis, New Mexico, studio owner who is willing to let Buddy and the Crickets record their music their way. Vi shuffles into the monitoring/control room late at night with a pot of coffee to ask if hubby Norman (played by the chameleonic David Bonanno) is ever coming to bed. Just one more take, but if only there were someone to play the unused piano sitting in the performers’ studio room. “Vi’s going in,” says Norman. The boys protest that they don’t want coffee, but coffee is not what the wife-in-a-bathrobe has in mind. She rips through a rock ’n’ roll keyboard riff the likes of which none of them had dreamed possible at that moment, and, the rest is kinda history. (That’s Vi Petty on the celesta on “Everyday.” The B side of that 45 features “Peggy Sue.” In case you were wondering or forgot or whatever.)
And that Harlem performance? The opening act—at the Apollo, where Buddy & the Crickets were the first whites to take the stage—is a red-hot duo comprising song-and-dance phenom Isaiah Reynolds and saxophonist Lena Richard. Reynolds hits belt heights and holds notes that would put plenty of singers to shame and he has enough energy for two or three rock stars. If the title weren’t already taken, he might be in the running for “hardest working man in show business.” Richard glitters in a sequined dress (costumes are by Kathleen Geldard) and could give Lisa Simpson a run for her money on her instrument. It’s a no-brainer that the pair will join Holly and the Crickets onstage once the Texans have proven their musical mettle.
Felicity Stiverson’s choreography not only makes all of us want to get up and dance—it makes dancing look easy. Which, of course, it isn’t, but “Buddy”’s stage moves are about sociality and energizing rather than about showing off technique. Thumbs up for working the upright bass into dance maneuvers for Matt Cusack, who at one point wields it like a guitar and later jumps up on its “waist” to pose during one especially joyous moment. (Cusack also plays the Big Bopper, delivering a “Chantilly Lace” that practically displaces the original in sexiness and vocal seduction.)
There’s more, including a charming and sympathetic Ariana Papaleo in the skimpily written role of Maria Elena, the secretary Buddy marries. Ben Johnson rocks as the Crickets’ drummer, who can invent and deliver rhythm via kneeslaps as well as the more traditional snare and sticks. Adrian Lopez as Ritchie Valens gets us singing along with “La Bamba,” one of several reminders that rock ’n’ roll has both Black and Mexican forebears along with its C&W parentage. (Valens was born Richard Valenzuela, and “La Bamba” does nothing to hide its mariachi influence. Did you know you may have been missing some of the words because your Spanish was a little deficient? Still, the refrain is unforgettable, and, as one commenter posted in response to the Youtube clip of that song as performed by Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie, with singing voice dubbed by David Hidalgo, in the biopic “La Bamba,”: “Confirmo que México tiene y tenía a los mejores músicos!! Una de mis canciones favoritas de México.”)
I can only fault this show for having been scheduled for too short a run.
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