February 3, 1959 will forever be known in the world of Rock & Roll as “the day the music died,” for it was on that date that 22-year-old Buddy Holly lost his life in a plane crash just five miles from Clear Lake, Iowa’s Surf Ballroom, the site of the pop star’s final concert.
Though the loss of the pilot and fellow passengers/recording artists Richie Valens and Jiles Perry “JP” Richardson, Jr. (aka The Big Bopper) were equally untimely, it is the erasure of Holly’s musical genius that has been most felt in the fifty-one years since that winter night.
Fortunately for the music world, Holly’s genius has lived on through his songs. The three albums Holly released during his lifetime (and the many more released posthumously) have become rock & roll classics, and have inspired and influenced Hall Of Famers The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and many more.
Since 1989, the musical bio/revue Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story has been keeping Buddy’s legend alive. Following its nearly 13-year-long West End run, a 1990 Broadway staging, and countless other regional and international productions, this hit-filled jukebox musical has now arrived at the La Mirada Performing Arts Center in a made-for-L.A. production that quite simply could not be better.
Some have quibbled that there’s “not enough book” in Buddy. Fiddlesticks! Buddy Holly lived, it would appear, a rather charmed life, with none of the drama that plagued groups like The Four Seasons. Thus, unlike Jersey Boys, Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story gives us the major highlights of a too short life and career, but keeps its main focus on Buddy’s music.
And what music that is, with hits like “That’ll Be The Day,” “Words Of Love,” “Everyday,” “Oh, Boy!,” “Peggy Sue,” “It’s So Easy,” “True Love Ways,” “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” and “Raining in My Heart,” all recorded during the brief eighteen months of Holly’s career. Holly was also the first rock musician to write his own songs, with the Beatles and Keith Richard later following his example.
Under Glenn Casale’s exhilarating direction, and featuring a star-making turn by Brandon Albright as Buddy, the current McCoy-Rigby production is an all-around smash.
Albright totally convinces as the brilliant singer-musician-songwriter, capturing all of Buddy’s infectious charm, good nature, and enthusiasm. He sounds just like Buddy, accompanies himself impeccably on the guitar, and just as the real Buddy did, holds the audience in the palm of his hand.
He is surrounded by an all-around terrific cast, most of whom are musical theater performers who just happen to play musical instruments as terrifically as they sing and act. There’s Steve Alderfer on rhythm guitar, Jack Bartlett on trombone, Omar D. Brancato on double bass, Darrin Glesser on trumpet, Bill Lewis on saxophone, Christia Mantzke on celesta, Megan McConnell on bass, Brent Schindele on piano, Matt Wolpe on drums, and Cody Wood on violin, the majority of whom double as real-life characters in Buddy’s life story.
Holly’s backup band, The Crickets, are brought to delightful life by Wolpe as Jerry Allison and Brancato as Joe B. Mauldin. What a treat it is to find out that Wolpe, the brilliant young star of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, is as expert drummer as he is a comic actor. Equally fun is watching Brancato play double bass in more positions than I would have thought humanly possible.
T.J. Dawson, the gifted director of the recent All Shook Up, transforms himself impressively into mountainous rocker The Big Bopper, singing the hell out of “Chantilly Lace,” and local Latino recording artist/heartthrob Manuel Romero makes for an exitante Richie Valens, singing Valens’ signature hit “La Bamba” with mucho sex appeal.
Honorary Latina Maegan McConnell follows her starring roles in West Side Story and Pippin with a charming performance as Holly’s wife Maria Elena, and yes, Buddy did propose to her on their very first date. The dynamic Jennifer Leigh Warren (Apollo Singer) belts out “Party” in her inimitable style, and she and McConnell provide vocal backup for Albright in the final concert which makes up the bulk of the show’s second act.
Andy Taylor does a folksy turn as radio DJ Hipockets Duncan and Arthur L. Ross is a rousing Apollo Theater DJ. Schindele and Mantzke do solid work as record producer Norman Petty and wife Vi, with Mantzke (as MaryLou Sokolof) singing a version of The Star Spangled Banner that’s almost worth the price of admission. Alderfer completes the cast as Tommy Alsop, who recorded at times with Buddy and The Crickets.
Highest marks go to offstage musical director Darryl Archibald and to choreography by the splendid Dana Solimando. John Iacovelli’s well-designed set makes for quick transitions from locale to locale, and surrounds the proscenium with images of 1950s pop legends, from Holly to Elvis to Marilyn Monroe. Marcy Froehlich’s costumes recreate fifties fashions in fine fashion. Steven Young’s lighting varies effectively from realistic indoor lighting for recording studio sessions to a pizzazzier look for concert performances. Josh Bessom’s sound design mixes voices and band to perfection. Judi Lewin’s period wig/hair/makeup have just the right 1950s look as do Terry Hanrahan’s properties. Gina Farina is production stage manager.
At the opening night performance, I happened to be sitting behind a 70something woman wearing a grandmotherly hat and found myself wondering what she was making of the high volume rock & roll coming from the stage. Then it hit me. Had Buddy Holly lived, the forever young rock star would be turning 74 this year.
There is no one too old to enjoy Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story, and no one too young to be enraptured with the timeless music of this much lamented legend. Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story is marvelous entertainment for anyone who’s got the music in them, and that’s just about everybody, right?
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
April 17, 2010
Photos: Michael Lamont