Like most people my age, before I prepared for this review, I knew that Buddy Holly was a famous singer from the 50’s who died young in a tragic plane crash, and that Weezer, a popular band with my generation, wrote a hit song about him. While I’m always excited to visit Riverside Center for the Performing Arts (their reputation for presenting the “Best Broadway in Virginia” is well deserved and consistent), I expected excellent performances and vocals, of course, but did not expect that this show would become one of my all-time favorite theater experiences!
Alan Janes’ The Buddy Holly Story, directed by Todd Meredith and Penny Ayn Maas, is the world’s most successful rock ‘n’ roll musical, and after seeing it myself, I am not at all surprised by this. Todd Meredith’s performance as Buddy Holly, a determined young singer who refused to submit in a repressive environment, was one of the most effervescent I’ve seen.
Scenic Designer Benjamin Burke did a great job of making the stage bright and exciting while also leaving ample room for instruments, as the music in this show is performed by a live band, with Robert A.K. Gonyo on trumpet, Ron Pronk on saxophone, Jeremy Renner on guitar, Chris McGraw on bass, and Jamie Pittle on drums.
Costumer Gaye Law uses poodle skirts, big hair, and blouses to land us smack in the mid 1950’s, where Buddy Holly and The Crickets (Chris McGraw as Joe B. Mauldin and Jamie Pittle as Jerry Allison) have just angered their manager Hipockets Duncan (Wyn Jake Delano) by upping the tempo of their song “Ready Teddy” while live on the radio– switching out it’s country western beat in favor of a rock ‘n’ roll tone. Hipockets is furious that Buddy Holly favors rock ‘n’ roll, telling him, “You’re not Elvis. You’ve got as much sex appeal as a telephone pole.” He’s not completely wrong here because thin and slight with thick black glasses, Buddy doesn’t quite fit the rock star mold.
Those around him have groomed Buddy to become a country western star, and with a record contract with a hit country music label, his road to success is destined to be a fairly smooth one. The problem, however, is that Buddy wants to play rock ‘n’ roll, and he will have to fight tooth and nail in order to do it. An ambitious perfectionist with seemingly endless energy and enthusiasm, he takes on this challenge full-throttle.
This ambition and nerve takes Buddy and The Crickets all the way to New York City, where they are getting ready to perform at The Apollo in Harlem. Singer Kadejah Oné amps up the crowd with a high-energy performance of “Shout,” easily one of the best songs of the night, sung from one of the best voices. In this fantastic scene, Anthony Cosby and Oné take the stage as two Apollo singers who nearly laugh themselves to death at the sight of Buddy and his band– a trio of white country boys onstage at the Apollo! After telling Buddy and The Crickets that they are probably going “to get killed,” they leave the stage, still cackling with laughter. However, they win over the large crowd with their vigor and charm, soon having people out of their seats and dancing along to songs like “Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy,” to name a couple. The Apollo performance is incredible, and made even better by Lighting Designer Michael Jarett, who uses creative spotlighting and a glittery disco ball to shake up the atmosphere.
With fame and success comes big changes for Buddy, in both his personal and professional life. We see this in many ways, one being his controversial marriage to Maria Elena (Jenny Stodd), a woman of Mexican heritage (keeping in mind that our society was much less tolerant in these times). His wife has a bad feeling about his upcoming tour and begs him not to go, but one thing Buddy Holly cannot be is persuaded otherwise when his mind is made up. And so we see him perform his Clear Lake Concert alongside friends and fellow stars The Big Bopper (Ian Lane, who has the audience clapping along to the beat with his song “Chantilly Lace,”) and Ritchie Valens (Daniel Carabello, who steals the spotlight with his hit “La Bamba.”)
The concert is a whirlwind of energy, and the thrill is contagious– a dance floor at the base of the stage invites audience members to get up and dance along to numbers such as “Raining in My Heart” and “Johnny B Goode.” Truly, the scene is so enjoyable that you almost forget the black cloud that is hanging over the concert– because as history tells us, these three get on a plane after the show only to have their brilliant flames blown out in a tragic and cruel twist of fate.
Riverside Center for the Performing Arts’ production of The Buddy Holly Story is musical theatre at its very best. The expert technical crew and outstanding ensemble makes this a thrilling night of entertainment! I’m told tickets are going fast, so grab a seat while you can!
Running Time: Approximately two and a half hours, including one 15-minute intermission.
The Buddy Holly Story plays through March 13, 2016 at The Riverside Center for the Performing Arts – 95 Riverside Parkway, in Fredericksburg, VA. For reservations, call (540) 370-4300.