If you knew nothing about “Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story” except for the enthusiastic raves from earlier Canyon Theatre Guild-goers, you might, as I was Sunday afternoon, find yourself temporarily baffled at the beginning of the show. Is this a play propelled by rock and roll music, or is it a ‘50s rock concert with a few vignettes to chronicle the singer’s rise to fame?
Simply speaking – it’s both! And the talent amassed by directors John Fortman and TimBen Boydston is amazing. As each player took his or her turn in the spotlight, I kept asking myself, “Where do they find these guys?!”
Longtime CTG fans know the Main Street venue is not large enough for an orchestra pit, so actors in shows like “Hello, Dolly” or “Guys and Dolls” are backed by pre-recorded music. However, the stage easily accommodates a piano, a celesta, a drum set, a double bass, two guitar players, a fiddler-violinist, and a jazz saxophone player. Add a variety of singers and dancers in the mix and you have everything needed to rock the inside of the auditorium – and all the featured music is live.
Now, drums, guitars, keyboards, and saxophones can simply be props in the hands of some amateurs, but there are no “wannabe” musicians in this production. Eighteen-year-old Will Riddle as Buddy Holly is simply dynamite when he starts plucking his guitar strings and belting out signature tunes like “That’ll Be the Day,” “Oh Boy,” and “Peggy Sue.” (Was it really originally intended to be Cindy Lou?) Riddle doesn’t just sing, he puts his all into each musical number, nimbly mimicking Holly’s on-stage gymnastics.
But the magic doesn’t stop there. What makes the play a rock concert comes from the keyboard and violin virtuosity of Jennifer Teague, the sax artistry of Eddie Landon, Andrew Dennett’s bass rhythms, Jacob Boscarino’s rhythm guitar, and Chris Yahnker’s infectious drum beats.
Back-up singing, dancing, and dual performances are delivered by an ensemble cast that includes Jennifer Callahan, Shannon Corbett, Sean Goodman, Le’a Jefferson, Kaitlyn Lavo, Jack Matson, Olivia Riddle, Madi Summers, Sandriene Taylor, and Adam Kort.
Chris Lopret helps carry the plotline along as radio deejay Hipockets Duncan and CTG regular Jeff Lucas shine as Holly’s promoter-manager, Norm Petty, and an audience-hyping announcer.
Holly’s story illustrates the influence that jazz and country music first had on his evolving style of rock and roll. Along the way, the audience is treated to the music of a few of his contemporaries: the Apollo theatre sound is delivered by Jonathan Williams’ hand-clapping rendition of “Shout”; and the Winter Dance Party tour features Richie Valens’ (Jacob Boscarino) hip-swaggering crooning of “La Bamba” and The Big Bopper’s (Josh Aran) bawdy delivery of “Chantilly Lace.” (“Oh baby, you know what I like!”)
And even though Buddy Holly’s story ended in a tragic airplane crash less than two years after his first hit topped the charts, the musical does not dwell on the despair it caused for rock and roll fans worldwide. Instead it celebrates Holly’s music, bringing the audience to its feet (and yes, dancing in the aisles, where there’s room) as the performers take their bows and revise some of the play’s earlier songs, with the addition of a few more ‘50s hits.
This play is a must for Holly fans and anyone craving the heart pounding, foot-stomping experience of a live concert – and it’s not too late to experience it. The community response has been so positive that the run has been extended to the second weekend in March.