Buddy Holly was all about music.
Before being killed in a famous airplane crash at age 22 in 1959 (an event immortalized by songwriter Don McLean as “the day the music died”), Buddy Holly was an influential trailblazer who advanced the energetic drive of rock and roll while writing simple but meaningful lyrics that cut straight to the teenage psyche. A habitual whirlwind, he did all of this in about 18 months. And since he married his wife, Maria Elena, eight hours after meeting her, perhaps he had a premonition he had to experience life in a compact span.
How fitting then that Hunter Foster’s production of “Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story” for New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse proceeds briskly and is so musically glorious and perpetually entertaining! This is a show that is not only made for popular entertainment but gives it a good name.
Foster makes the most of what could be dry material by putting youthful enthusiasm, the archest part of Alan Janes’ dialogue, and Holly’s dance-enticing tunes in the forefront. What plays best lands up front. Foster also yields maximum advantage from the current trend to have actors play their own instruments and be their own band. John Dewey (Holly) and the entire ensemble can jam from country sounds to jazz with rock being the byproduct. Multiple threats all, they act with aplomb and have a deft time with Lorin Latarro’s typically rousing dance steps.
Always engaging, Foster’s production comes stirringly alive when Holly and the Crickets, his sidekicks and backup musicians, bassist Joe (James David Larson) and drummer Jerry (Zach Cossman) launch into the more than dozen tunes that were chart-toppers in their day. You feel the visceral core of Holly’s songs, as well as their romance, and experience, via Foster’s staging, the uncompromising standards Holly insisted upon. Larson and Cossman stick around as backups with different names after Buddy and the Crickets separate.
We are talking about Hunter Foster, so there will be some excesses in the name of exuberant imagination and creativity. A humorously impressive example being Larson doing arduous acrobatics with his bass fiddle: the actor/musician practically rides his instrument as he plucks its strings from various positions, e.g. behind his back, over his head, and with him astride it. He truly amazes when he sits in the bass’s curved waist, balancing himself and the instrument while keeping rhythm with Dewey and others. The gimmick is such a stunner, it inspires redeeming admiration as it pulls focus from stage business that matters more. A gratuitous display of a singular talent can’t lie dormant, I guess.
Other seemingly bizarre Foster moves also earn redemption. In one sequence in a New Mexico recording studio, he has Gina Scherr’s lights turn the stage so gray, it has a silvery black-and-white film feel while Holly and his band mime the first bars of a tune in slow motion. This gambit becomes off-putting and artsy especially when it’s repeated for the third time. Later you see there was method in Foster’s madness. The songs being mimed are sung in full in an upcoming concert scene. All becomes plausible and is forgiven. You realize Foster knew his audience didn’t need to hear two full-out versions of the songs, and the shadow singing suddenly goes from being irritating to ingenious.
Music and characterization need to be strong because while Holly’s life is intrinsically dramatic, it also follows the path of many show biz success (and unfortunate outcome) sagas. It’s the music that holds the audience’s attention and gets them rocking in their seats. You feel the uptick in enjoyment and involvement when Dewey and his cohorts are wailing — especially later in the show when the bass and drums are augmented by horns.
Alan Janes’ book does its job in telling Holly’s tale, but it’s basic and, even though accurate, a bit mired in cliche. It relates Holly’s story in prosaic terms that remain matter-of-fact and rarely provide dramatic or emotional heft.
On one level, this downplaying is smart because Holly’s life is frequently written about for theater and the media and is fairly well-known, Buddy fights to have his songs done his way, wears glasses on stage because he wears glasses offstage, and butts heads with anyone who suggests he compromise. He has a meteoric rise to fame and popularity, a quick a romance and marriage, a sensational unbeknownst last concert, and an untimely catastrophic death.
On another level, Janes makes “Buddy” an exercise in plot shorthand. He gets past the mechanically biographical to include more of those songs we long to hear and, sometimes, get to sing along with. Janes gives more emphasis to Holly’s conflicts with the Crickets and his original manager, Norman Petty (Kent M. Lewis), and Maria Elena’s(Natalie Haro) role as a catalyst to much of the discord than he does to other facets of Holly’s professional life.
About the only moment that provides a significant chill is the ironic one is which Richie Valens (Gilbert D. Sanchez) tosses a coin with a side musician to determine who gets the last seat on the fateful plane whose crash kills him, Holly, the Big Bopper (Karack Osborn), and their pilot.
Dewey is deadpan and ingenuous in portraying Holly’s youthfulness and youthful insistence on absolutes, especially where integrity is concerned, while letting you see Holly mature as a man and an artist. His singing is in the Holly tone and helps you experience Buddy’s uniqueness and greatness.
Dewey can be subdued, but he provides fireworks. So does Brandi Chavonne Massey as she delivers a rousing version of “Shout” and makes comic hay with some pert one-liners directed as the Crickets before Massey realizes the white guys in front of her are the ones on the records she thought were made by black musicians. Her character is particularly nonplussed as Buddy and his band are making their New York debut at Harlem’s Apollo.
If Massey is a constant gem, so is Elizabeth Nestlerode as manager Petty’s caustic wife, Vi, who also plays a mean honky-tonk piano and lovely celesta. Sanchez’s Valens is a perpetually moving fashion plate doing “La Bamba,” which we get to sing too, and Osborn delights the house when the Bopper says his “hey, baby” and displays his gold telephone for “Chantilly Lace.”
All in Foster’s cast go to town. Latarro’s choreography brings sweep. Scherr’s lights okay a transitional role. Adam Kich impresses with his realistic sound studio. And Nicole V. Moody’s costumes are perfection.
Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Through Saturday, July 16. $45 to $84. 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.