‘Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” should prove to be a different kind of season opener for the Spokane Civic Theatre:
• It comes from the 1980s as opposed to the 1880s (the Civic’s previous season opener was “The Pirates of Penzance”).
• The lead actor (Brian Gunn) plays a mean Fender Stratocaster.
• The show will have a ’50s rock concert feel; director Yvonne A.K. Johnson hopes people will be “dancing in the aisles.”
One thing that’s the same: “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” was a London smash of Gilbert & Sullivan-sized proportions.
It packed in the London audiences beginning in 1989 for more than 12 years and 5,000 performances. It was also a Broadway smash and longtime touring hit.
The jury’s still out on whether the music of Buddy Holly will last as long as the music of Gilbert & Sullivan, but so far, it’s looking good. After more than 50 years, most people still know and love those great Holly hits, including “That’ll Be the Day,” “Oh, Boy,” “Peggy Sue” and “Everyday.”
All of those are in “Buddy,” plus many more.
In fact, it’s best to think of “Buddy” as a great, high-energy, infectious showcase for Holly’s music than a true in-depth biography. Yes, it does show the Lubbock beginnings of Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Yes, it shows the struggles of early rock-’n’-rollers for acceptance. Yes, it touchingly commemorates Holly’s tragic, early death.
But on the evidence of the national tour that hit Spokane in 2001, the musical is a feel-good re-creation of two rock concerts.
The first takes place early in Holly’s career at the famous Apollo Theater in Harlem, where Buddy and the boys win over a skeptical crowd.
The second takes place in Clear Lake, Iowa – the last concert for the men who Don McLean, in the song “American Pie,” famously called “the father, the son and the holy ghost”: Ritchie Valens, Holly and the Big Bopper.
So in addition to Holly’s hits, the show will also have the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” and Valens’ “La Bamba.” You’ll hear a few Chuck Berry tunes as well, including “Brown Eyed Handsome Man” and “Johnny B. Goode.”
And it will also showcase a few Holly songs made famous by other artists, including “Words of Love,” covered by the Beatles, and “Not Fade Away,” which was the Rolling Stones’ first U.S. single.
All of these great ’50s tunes helped make London go crazy for this musical at its world première. The Sunday Times of London called the show “an unashamed, rabble-rousing fiesta.” The Daily Mail said audiences went “absolutely crazy” during the big finale.
That’s what the Civic hopes for as well. The show has a 26-person cast including two choruses and several musicians who will supplement the music-playing lead performers.
Gunn takes on the title role. He has been taking lessons from Joe Brasch, one of Spokane’s leading guitar masters, so he should be in “Rave On” shape on the Fender.
Dave Turner and James Elvidge play the other members of the Crickets. Casandra Marie Hayes plays Maria Elena Holly and Daniel Griffith plays producer Norman Petty.
Jhon Goodwin plays the Big Bopper and Paul Villabrille plays Ritchie Valens. Music direction is by Michael Saccomanno and Jim Ryan.