I attended opening night of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story at the Chemainus Theatre Festival expecting big things from a musical based on the man whose death inspired American Pie, Don McLean’s classic 1971 anthem.
I left with mixed feelings, but for reasons not every theatregoer might identify with.
I’m a fan of narrative and my level of engagement with a show is directly correlated with how detailed and nuanced its storyline happens to be.
I found Buddy to be bipolar in that regard and I was disappointed with how Buddy’s writer Alan Janes let the story fall by the wayside halfway through each half of the show.
Holly rose to fame during one of the most fascinating eras in American history. The Interstate Highway System was born the same year Holly recorded his lone rockabilly album in Nashville, Tennessee for Decca Records. Meanwhile, McCarthyism thrived, propelling American conservatism to its zenith as racial tensions mounted across much of the Southern United States. President Dwight D. Eisenhower ratified the Civil Rights Act of 1957 — intended to boost African American voter registration above a dismal 20 per cent — only two and a half weeks after Buddy Holly and the Crickets played a landmark series of shows at New York’s Apollo Theatre, a venue catering almost exclusively to African American patrons and performers. And in Holly’s home state of Texas, it wasn’t until 1967 that the state’s ban on interracial marriage would be overturned by the United States Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia.
Brief references to rock ‘n’ roll being considered taboo because it was considered “black music” or a “contagious form of mental illness” hint at American racial and political divisions, as does the portrayal of the Crickets’ comically awkward first encounter with the coloured performer — played to perfection by Jenni Burke — who opens for them at the Apollo Theatre.
But Janes stops there, failing to layer his story to a level of detail that I had come into the theatre expecting.
Nevertheless, Janes delivers successfully in his portrayal of how a star’s unbounded energy and enthusiasm led to short-lived fame and fortune. Comedy ensues as Holly — played by the incredibly talented Zachary Stevenson — and his bandmates earnestly vie for the attention of Vi Petty (Janet Gigliotti), Peggy Sue (Sarah Carlé), Maria Elena (Jess Amy Shead) and every other female they happen to cross paths with.
Additional laughs result from the dialogue between radio host Hipockets Duncan (Greg Barry) and Holly, and Darren Burkett’s portrayals of Ritchie Valens and a thickly accented New York City radio host.
While the story does seem to trail off halfway through each act, the music featured in Buddy more than compensates.
Stevenson brings to the stage both a convincing likeness to Holly and a depth of musical talent that surpasses anything I’ve encountered before in my limited exposure to musical theatre.
The same holds true for his fellow cast members, most notably Burke’s enormous, soul-stirring voice and the vocal talents of Big Bopper Greg Barry.
Musical director Danny Balkwill and sound designer Paul Tedeschini deserve credit for delivering a technically impressive production that flawlessly blends muted trumpet and trombone into the mix alongside stand-up bass and electric guitar.
Ultimately, Buddy is the story of a man and his tragically short-lived musical ambitions that delivers two hours of foot-tapping, hand-clapping, crowd-pleasing performance of the very songs that marked the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story runs until April 7 at the Chemainus Theatre Festival. Tickets are available for evening and matinee performances and can be purchased online or by calling the Chemainus Theatre Festival box office at 1-800-565-7738. On Wednesdays, audience members can learn even more about the Buddy story and about the production by joining members of the artistic team for a Talk Back session after the show.