By Barry Reszel
I met Buddy Holley the other night at Stage 773.
I thought I was simply headed for a tribute concert to Buddy Holly, the bespectacled kid from Lubbock , Texas, and his pals, the Crickets, who set the musical world on fire for roughly 18 months leading to Holly’s well-known death in 1959 at age 22.
I got that, in part, with Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story…and a magnificent tribute concert to be sure.
But this production from American Blues Theatre of Alan James’ 2004 jukebox musical is so very much more than that. “Oh, Boy!” Is it ever!
Because patrons aren’t merely treated to perfect renditions of the Holly songbook (most notably “That’ll Be The Day,” “True Love Ways,” “Peggy Sue,” “Everyday,” “Oh, Boy!” and “Rave On”) and the hits of his contemporaries (“Chantilly Lace,” “La Bamba,” “Shout,” “Raining in My Heart,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “It Doesn’t Matter Any More,” among others).
They get to meet Charles Hardin Holley, born in 1936; nicknamed Buddy in childhood; last name changed because of a misspelling on the Decca Records contract he signed in 1956. That’s because Holley lives on through brilliant Zachary Stevenson.
Stevenson doesn’t portray Holly quite so much as he channels Holley. The signature vocal hiccups, alternating regular voice with falsetto and percussive guitar playing are all executed to recording-studio perfection. But the same might be said of a terrific impersonation concert. In addition here, Stevenson wraps his acting talents around this young, unassuming, musically-driven, loyal friend, business neophyte, smitten romantic and burgeoning star.
You don’t get that in a concert.
To be sure, Stevenson gets star help to make it happen. There’s no weakness in the cast of Buddy, that includes (alphabetically): Angela Alise (Apollo Performer), Chuckie Benson (Apollo Performer), Liz Chidester (Vi Petty), Ian Paul Custer (Hi Pockets), Ann Delaney (Company), Vasily Deris (Big Bopper), Jennifer Dymit (Company), Alex Goodrich (Clearlake Announcer), Derek Hasenstab (Norman Petty), Molly Hernández (Maria Elena), Cisco Lopez (Ritchie Valens), Michael Mahler (Tommy / Cricket; music director), Kieran McCabe (Jerry / Cricket), Daniel Riley (Apollo Performer) and Shaun Whitley (Joe / Cricket). Particular plaudits to Chidester and Hernandez for Jeff-consideration-worthy performances.
If there is an overall nit, it’s a book that plods a bit in the first act with a particularly disappointing recording session scene that moves the timeframe but teases just the first few measures of Holly’s hits, creating an “Is this all there is?” anxiety. Thankfully, Director Lili-Anne Brown keeps the action moving to the rectifying closing scene of Act 1, the first of two full-blown concerts of the performance.
Mahler’s magnificent music direction leads the creative team including Sarah E. Ross’ well-thought-out sets complimented by Samantha C. Jones’ period-perfect costume design. John Martinez’s finely executed choreography is an added plus.
A full production history and plot summary of Buddy may be read here.
The truth is, you already know the story. It’s immortalized by Don McLean’s hit song “American Pie” as “The Day the Music Died,” in the Feb. 3, 1959 plane crash outside Clear Lake Iowa, killing Ritchie Valens, J. P. Richardson (the Big Bopper) and Holly. It’s depicted in countless shows, films and documentaries.
But this production is not about Holly’s death. Instead, it’s an honest portrayal of his life that allows patrons to truly understand why his death was a tragedy of epic proportions. (Did you know it was Holly who invented the classic rock ‘n’ roll band structure of two guitars, bass and drums?)
You can’t get that without getting to know Buddy Holley. And patrons of this magnificent production (of which you, dear reader, should be one), certainly do. For that, we have Zachary Stevenson, Lili-Anne Brown and American Blues Theatre to thank.
American Blues Theatre presents “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story” through May 26 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Avenue, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here. Photos by Michael Brosilow.