The story by now is so familiar. Young Charles Hardin Holley, nicknamed Buddy, blasts out of Lubbock, Texas, to become a pioneering and influential rock ’n’ roll performer and songwriter. His death at age 22, in a 1959 airplane crash that also claimed the life of J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens, is widely remembered as “the day the music died.”
Buddy Holly, he of the thick black glasses, creative vocal hiccups and musical genius, lives on in myriad ways, through his music, through characterizations on TV and in movies and, since 1989, a jukebox musical telling the story of his life.
“Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” was a smash hit for Spokane Civic Theatre six years ago. This weekend, the new company, Spokane Valley Summer Theatre, brings “Buddy” back to Spokane in an amiable and fun production that hits a lot of right notes.
There’s a lot of experience with “Buddy” in this production. Directed by former Civic executive artistic director Yvonne A.K. Johnson, SVST’s cast is headed by Civic “Buddy” vet Dalen Gunn. He wears Holly like a comfortable suit. He has the young rocker’s mannerisms and passion down, and easily works his way through Holly’s characteristic singing hiccups. Sure, he bears a passing resemblance to the Texan, but he’s also up to the task of playing Holly’s guitar parts and singing some of the most iconic songs in the early rock repertoire: “That’ll Be the Day,” “Everyday,” “Not Fade Away,” “Peggy Sue” and “Rave On.”
The story, written by Alan James, is a Cliffs Notes version of Holly’s life starting in 1956, from the early days with his band, The Crickets, chafing at the pressure to play country-western music, to the first flush of success with his first No. 1 hit, “That’ll Be the Day.” We see him meeting Norman Petty (Mike Muzatko), the New Mexico producer who sees the potential in the young Texan. We watch as he and his bandmates, Jerry Allison (Andrews Repsold) and Joe B. Mauldin (Jon Lossing), bring the house down at the Apollo Theater in Harlem. We watch his whirlwind courtship of Maria Elena Santiago, who becomes his wife two months after they meet. And we relive parts of that final concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. It’s a breezy telling of a short life.
The musicians in “Buddy” – Repsold on drums, Lossing on bass, Jacob Segalla as fourth Cricket and guitarist Tommy Alsop – are a tight combo. David McElroy adds some fun energy as an unnamed Apollo singer. As Valens, Paul Villabrille brings an easy charm to “La Bamba.” And as the Big Bopper, Kevin Partridge simply nails it, right down to the elongated “Hello, baby” that opens the Bopper’s hit, “Chantilly Lace.”
The SVST production was a little slow to find its footing Thursday night, but by midway through Act I, the able cast was on both feet, keeping the audience’s toes tapping. Feb. 3, 1959, may have been the day the music died, but “Buddy” proves the music indeed lives.