Have any of you readers ever witnessed a baseball game where the greatest excitement came in the late innings? That is much the same feeling you may have if you are fortunate enough to capture some of the rapidly disappearing tickets to the current Crighton Theatre production of the fun-filled musical, “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story.” Whatever you do, don’t leave this show early to beat the crowd to the parking lot! Written by Alan Janes and Rob Bettison, this edition is skillfully directed by Marty Craig as it tells the true story of young singer/songwriter, Buddy Holly of Lubbock, Texas. Rising to fame in the 1950’s, this early rock-n-roll pioneer shot up the charts with his band, The Crickets, and went on to brief but immortal solo fame before the tragic plane crash that took the lives of not only Buddy, but also fellow rockers, J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson, and young Ritchie Valens, all on what has become known as “the day the music died,” February 3, 1959.
Director Craig, and Musical Director, Dave Englert, had the good fortune to find talented young local musicians that could really capture the kind of fresh excitement that was the Holly trademark. In the role of Buddy, Drew Prince not only dazzles us with his guitar work, but is amazing in his vocalization of the unique Holly singing style in classic numbers like, “That‘ll Be the Day,” and the sweet simplicity of “Every Day.” Mr. Prince is ably assisted by “The Crickets,” featuring the considerable musical talents of Jordan McLaughlin on drums, Anthony Al-Rifai on bass, and Cade Mitchell on guitar. Beginning with a nicely staged “Hayrider” scene that reminded me of the Texas Opry over in Magnolia, the story follows the boys early career in Lubbock as a local disk jockey named Hipockets Duncan (Jeff Elkins in a rich-voiced and convincing portrayal) gives them the encouragement to head to Nashville. But the guys are more interested in rock-n-roll than country music, and before long they head to New York. That not only resulted in Buddy meeting his young bride-to-be, Maria Elena (Christina Taylor), but also brought the boys to their famed appearance at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre, where they won over an audience that was not used to seeing “white folks” on that stage. Miss Craig did a masterful job of assembling the cast for the Apollo segment, with a show highlight coming in the form of gifted songbird, Bobbie Jones, who promptly blew the roof off the theater with a perfectly elegant rendition of “At Last,” that had the audience cheering. Dressed in a sleek and fiery gown, she promptly hit another homerun with the rousing song, “Party,” that rocked the room, while an attractive pair of back-up singers in powder blue gowns added to the excitement. And speaking of excitement, the directors had assembled a great 8-piece Apollo Band, and Teddy Gipson was just terrific warming up the audience as the Apollo emcee. Gipson was full of fun in a sharp white suit that would have made Cab Calloway proud! (The show’s nifty 50’s costumes were designed Lynn Peverill and Sara Soland). When the Crickets get onstage they win over the skeptics with a great, “Peggy Sue.” A rendition of “Words of Love,” seemed not to be in the perfect key for Mr. Prince, though the audience loved it. But the jazzy “Oh, Boy!” that followed was a powerful musical blast that sent the audience off to intermission smiling.
Act Two has some minor weaknesses. Although I enjoy being in a theater as intimate as the Crighton, where skilled actors can be heard without microphones, there were moments when some dialogue got lost for lack of projection or enunciation. Beyond that, the sketchy romance of Buddy and Maria, along with the bickering feud that breaks up The Crickets, do not amount to compelling theatre. But it really doesn’t matter, because in this show the music rules so successfully. Even when it is being silly we enjoy the songs of the “Frigo Ladies,” the “Snowbirds,” and a local pageant queen who hilariously “murders” a rendition of “God Bless America.” But as we move to the final concert the night of the fatal crash, Buddy Holly numbers are the center of this universe with gems like the sweet, “True Love Ways,” an echoing, “Maybe Baby,” a thunderous, “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and a well-staged version of the less familiar, “Heartbeat.” The production really captures the atmosphere of an exciting rock concert with great lighting, and a cast of onstage back-up singers with some lightweight but pleasant choreography that could have used a bit more variety. As for the “Big Bopper,” (Jim Heffner), he really “nails it” singing the classic, “Chantilly Lace.” A big man with a big voice, Heffner glowed in his snazzy gold lamé outfit and moved with the heavyweight grace of a Jackie Gleason. Then, not to be out done, Bille Bruley explodes onstage as Ritchie Valens in a sensational vocal performance of “La Bamba,” that steals the show. He literally owned the stage for this number, strutting about with cocky authority, and working the crowd into a frenzy. If this whole evening were a talent show, he, Mr. Prince, and Miss Jones would be in a tight race.
Mr. Prince sang a “Rave On” that was not clearly audible, but delivered other Buddy Holly delights that included an exquisite “It’s Raining,” along with an exciting and thrashing “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” that may have needed just a bit more control. During a standing ovation there were thunderous encores of “Johnny B. Goode,” and “Oh, Boy!” Little children were dancing in the aisles, and we grown-ups were wishing we were that uninhibited. As I said to director Craig at show’s end, “Who needs the Apollo? We have it all right here at the Crighton!”
Buddy continues at the Crighton Theatre through September 13th with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. on August 31st and September 7th. For tickets and information call 936-441-7469 or visit the website at www.crightonplayers.org.