I’ve seen other productions of “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” before, but none quite like the one played on the main stage at the Florida Repertory Theater.
It’s exciting and inciting.
And it’s almost like being present at the birth of early rock ‘n’ roll, although to be honest there were many early rock births, including the recording of Jackie Brenston’s ‘Rocket 88’ and His Delta Cats in 1951, considered by some to be the first rock song. (The Delta Cats were actually Ike Turner and his Kings of Rhythm.)
But no one can deny Buddy Holly’s influence on rock ‘n’ roll. (The Beatles covered his music and named their band after the Crickets.)
A young singer/songwriter/musician from Lubbock, Texas, Buddy Holly didn’t want to be just another country star. He had a vision of the music he wanted to create.
But others in the industry just wanted to stick it in the country music box and seal the lid.
At the start of this jukebox musical, we see Buddy and the Crickets perform live on the radio at KDAV in their hometown. They start with a slow country song, but suddenly slam into “Ready Teddy”.
(Decades later, in 1977, Elvis Costello, who sounded very Buddy Holly, did the same thing on “Saturday Night Live” when he and his band started playing “Less Than Zero.” later he stopped the band and they played a catchy version of “Radio Radio” instead.)
Michael Perrie Jr., is a totally convincing Buddy: clumsy and geeky, with a seductive personality. And he looks like him too, with his deep tones, his high notes and his hiccuping way of singing.
He looks like he’s about to go to algebra class, not set the world on fire musically. (He is told at one point that he has as much sex appeal as a telephone pole.)
Buddy is backed by Noah Berry on drums, Armando Gutierrez on guitar, and Matt Cusack (also the show’s musical director) on double bass.
They do sonic magic. Song after song, the quartet produces that nearly derailed energy barely contained in early rock ‘n’ roll. These guys don’t hold back.
Decca Records didn’t know what to do with it, but Norman Petty (Merritt David Janes, in one of his many roles), a record producer at NorVaJack Records in Clovis, New Mexico, does. He drops them in the studio, and Buddy creates the songs that will become classics: “That’ll Be the Day”, “Every Day”. They perform them with unrestrained joy.
Petty signs them to his label and, in one of his first acts as manager, screws them up by stating that he will get songwriting credit on the songs. It’s just another way to squeeze money out of the band who, in their youthful desire to have their music heard, compromise too much.
“Buddy” tells the story of a brief musical career that ended tragically when the performer was killed in a plane crash at age 22. He skillfully gives us stages in radio stations, recording studios and stages to present us with pure performances. We are given a humorous scene at the Apollo Theater in New York, when Buddy Holly and the Crickets became the first white act to play there.
The end of the show, which takes place at the Winter Dance Party in Clear Lake, Iowa, becomes a loud, big concert, with Mr. Janes as Big Bopper and Mr. Gutierrez as Ritchie Valens. At this time, the audience is on their feet, singing and clapping.
Director Jason Parrish has put together what might be one of Florida Rep’s finest musical productions.
Sure, it’s corny sometimes. And series writer Alan Janes may have played with the facts in places to make the story a bit more dramatic.
But “Buddy” is fun and uplifting.
Three other actors complete the cast, playing various roles: Samantha Sayah, Veronica Stern and Garrick Vaughan. Mrs. Sayah portrays Buddy’s wife, Maria Elena, as well as Norman Petty’s wife, Vi (which you suspect must be short for snitch). Ms. Stern shows great variety, performing a murderous rendition of “Shout” with Mr. Vaughan on saxophone, then in Act II singing “The Star Spangled Banner” as the pageant queen. Mr. Vaughan plays a variety of instruments, including, at one point, spoons.
The two women harmonize on live radio spots, singing the joy of tractor oil.
Guests should come early, as there appears to be a pre-show, with the actors performing a few numbers for their unseen radio audience.
Everything about this show is perfect, not only musically, but theatrically.
The sound is clear and balanced (Adam Trummel), the costumes fun and bubbly (Stefanie Genda) and the set (Bert Scott) makes you feel like you’re back in the 1950s.
The actors are all so talented musically, switching instruments and proving proficient on all of them. And they have the lightest contact with their characters.
I admit that I didn’t expect to enjoy “Buddy” as much as I did.
But wow, this cast really blows the roof off the place.
There’s a big party at the Florida Rep. It would be a shame if you missed her. ¦