Buddy Holly Dances into TBTS

tbtsbuddyTwo sound cues provide a bittersweet frame for the trajectory of The Buddy Holly Story, now in a swaggeringly triumphant run at Bill Hanney’s Theatre by the Sea in Matunuck. As the show opens, before the glittering ice blue curtain opens to reveal what seems to be the tiniest of sets, we hear a radio commercial for the “new 1956 Chevy Impala!” That car was a prototype, with an eye toward the future, blending the best of what came before to create something entirely new for a generation that wanted something bold and fun. Flash forward to the end of Act Two, just as the Buddy Holly Orchestra (along with Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson) are about to perform their final show in Clearlake before the airplane crash that signaled “the day the music died.” At this crucial moment, we hear another car ad – this time for the 1959 Ford Edsel, a portent of doom if ever there was one.

First things first – director/choreographer Richard Sabellico has handed Kevin Hill (TBTS artistic director) and Bill Hanney a hell of a season opener. If there aren’t people dancing in the aisles (as there were on opening night) at any given show, then pulses must be checked. The musical performances and subtle, yet effective, dancing is skillful and infectious, the sound quality is near perfect and the costumes alone (handled by David Costa-Cabral) are worth the ticket. To take issue with Buddy is to side with the cynics who decry the jukebox musicals that, Jersey Boys aside, sacrifice character development for tunes, tunes and more tunes. However, the TBTS winning formula proves that a show like this is the way to start off the summer right and ticket sales alone trump any critical elitism.

Now, far be it from Motif (or anyone else) to diminish the talents and contributions to popular culture left to us by the late Buddy Holly. Early rock ‘n’ roll was certainly shaped, in some small way, by Holly’s musical output (his contributions to record production, may, in fact, have been greater). He was no Ike, Jerry Lee, Little Richard, Elvis or Chuck, but he and his co-passengers that fateful day in 1959 did leave us with some good tunes and, perhaps more enduring, a compelling story to tell. With soap-opera subplots, a dash of melting pot American immigration that would resonate strongly in today’s political climate and the always popular ending of young talent cut short in bloom, the tale of Holly, Valens and The Big Bopper was destined for retelling the second the plane hit the ground.

Increasingly, though, no one really remembers Holly and the others unless reminded by an oldies DJ, one of the many film portrayals, or … this. The Buddy Holly Story bills itself as the first of the jukebox musicals, so we have him to blame for that, anyway. However, unlike something like Mamma Mia, Buddy had an actual story from which to draw, but we’re not so interested in how factual it is anymore. In going to see a stage show about rock music, we’re only interested in one thing — how’s the music? Does it, in fact, rock? Or do we have musical theater dressing up as rock delivered by a bunch of kids who are far too young to grasp what the fuss could have been about all those years ago? Will the show be as safe and approachable as Buddy himself was or will we get a hint of the electricity and threat that the parents and preachers were so afraid of back then? Motif has seen other productions of this sketchy script and went in wondering if TBTS could make us remember them good ol’ boys or whether the levee was dry. Happily, in the hands of Sabellico, both the production and the Holly legend have surpassed expectation, at least as far as the music goes.

Michael Siktberg’s Buddy is a treat, capturing not only the performance, but the hubris that the skinny bespectacled Texan exuded in spades. His guitar playing and singing are filled with a fire that grows from an almost sloppy, garage style to polished triumph by the end of the show. Once he and his Crickets, portrayed so convincingly by Seth Eliser (drummer Jerry Allison) and Sam Sherwood (bassist Joe B. Mauldin) make the move to New Mexico to record their first real songs, the shaky acting from the first scenes starts to pick up steam. With the introduction of Vi Petty (musical director and RI local, Maria Day), the show takes on an almost “Behind The Music”-esque feel as we watch Buddy and his band craft hits like “Peggy Sue” and “Everyday.” Maria Day’s presence alone picks up the proceedings, spurring some actual character interaction that goes beyond a mere vehicle for more songs and we feel we know more about her and her relationship with record producer Norm Petty than we do about Buddy himself.

And, this is fine, because we really just want to hear Buddy and his Crickets play. By the time we get to The Apollo Theater performance at the end of Act One (where Buddy and his very white boys win over the Harlem audience as well as the other performers in a fictional twist that satisfies, but is not what actually occurred), we finally truly get what we came for. Aside from a show-stealing set including Sherwood’s complete physical dominance of his standup bass, we get one of the most powerful performances of the entire show in Shayla Simmons’ rendition of “Shout.” At this point, the stage is finally at full TBTS depth, the previous scenes peeling back layer after layer until we felt the back doors might open up to reveal the night sky. Scenic designer Kyle Dixon should be credited for this effect as the claustrophobia of a Lubbock radio station eventually gives way, scene after scene, to the open vistas of The Apollo and the world beyond. “Not Fade Away,” one of Holly’s most infectious tunes (the Bo Diddley beat was one of the factors that actually helped them gain acceptance with the Apollo audiences) is rendered perfectly here with the requisite slapback echo on the backing vocals expertly delivered by sound designer Alex Neumann’s team.

Act Two is essentially a crash course in Buddy’s relationship with his Puerto Rican wife, Maria Elena (played with a vivacious flair by Beatriz Naranjo), the breakup of the Crickets, and the final concert in Clearlake, Iowa. Again, the portrayals are somewhat fictional. Albert Jennings’ Ritchie Valens is a force of nature and a joy to watch, but certainly nothing like the actual Valens, coming across more like a proto Bruno Mars than the boyishly endearing guitarist that Valens actually was. Jean-Pierre Ferragamo’s “Big Bopper” Richardson is fantastic, however, and brings down the house during “Chantilly Lace” as well as sharing a nicely acted scene with Siktberg just prior to taking the stage. The ensemble gets to shine (including a terrific sax performance by Sylvester McCracken), the costumes are, again, wonderful and the music is thrilling. The concert ends with a rousing “Johnny B. Goode” (though that song was never played at the actual show), ensuring that the name Buddy Holly is synonymous with the history of rock ‘n’ roll. We can’t help but be a tiny bit moved at the final tableau as we hear the death announcement that we already knew was coming, but that’s musical theater for you. When it works, we don’t ask why, we just let ourselves get carried away in that harmonious tide. The Buddy Holly Story is not meant to educate – it’s there for us to feel as we watch incredibly talented musician/actors reflect a time when music could still walk that line between innocence and danger. With Buddy, The Day The Music Died is always tomorrow, because tonight, we dance.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story runs through June 19 at Theatre By the Sea, 364 Cards Pond Road, Matunuck. Tickets can be purchased by calling 401-782-8587, or by visiting theatrebythesea.com

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