I’ve seen other productions of “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” before, but none like the one playing at the Florida Repertory Theatre’s main stage.
It’s exciting and inciting.
And it’s almost like being present at the birth of early rock ’n’ roll, though, to be truthful, there were many births of early rock, including Jackie Brenston and His Delta Cats’ 1951 recording of “Rocket 88,” 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 the influence Buddy Holly had on rock ’n’ roll. (The Beatles covered his music and named their band in honor of 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 for the music he wanted to create.
But others in the industry just wanted to stick him in the country music box and seal the lid.
Early in this jukebox musical we see Buddy and the Crickets perform live on radio at KDAV in their hometown. They start out with a slow country song but then suddenly slam into “Ready Teddy.”
(A few decades later in 1977, Elvis Costello, looking very Buddy Holly-ish, famously did the same thing on “Saturday Night Live” when he and his band started out playing “Less Than Zero.” A few notes in, he stopped the band and they instead played a rousing version of “Radio Radio.”)
Michael Perrie Jr., is a totally convincing Buddy: gawky and geeky, with a winsome personality. And he sounds like him too, with his deep tones, high notes and hiccupping way of singing.
He looks as if 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 music director) on stand-up bass.
They make sonic magic. Song after song, the quartet produces that about-to-fly-off-the-rails barely contained energy of early rock ’n’ roll. These guys don’t hold back.
Decca Records didn’t know what to do with them, but Norman Petty (Merritt David Janes, in one of his many roles), a record producer of NorVaJack Records in Clovis, New Mexico, does. He lets them loose 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 their manager, screws them over by declaring he’ll get writing credit on the songs. It’s just another way of squeezing money out of the band, who, in their youthful eagerness to have their music heard, compromise way too much.
“Buddy” tells the story of a brief musical career that ended tragically when the performer was killed in a plane crash at 22. It cleverly gives us scenes in radio stations, recording studios and stages to present us with pure performances. We’re given a humorous scene at the Apollo Theatre in New York City, when Buddy Holly and the Crickets became the first white act to play at the venue.
The end of the show, set at the Winter Dance Party in Clear Lake, Iowa, becomes one big raucous concert, with Mr. Janes as the Big Bopper and Mr. Gutierrez as Ritchie Valens. By this time, the audience is on its feet, singing and clapping along.
Director Jason Parrish has put together what may be one of the most perfect musical productions at Florida Rep.
Sure, it’s corny at times. And the show’s writer, Alan Janes, may have played with the facts in some spots to make the story a little more dramatic.
But “Buddy” is fun and exhilarating.
Three other actors round out the cast, playing a variety of roles: Samantha Sayah, Veronica Stern and Garrick Vaughan. Ms. Sayah portrays Buddy’s wife, Maria Elena, as well as Norman Petty’s wife, Vi (which you suspect must be short for vivacious.) Ms. Stern shows great range, performing a killer rendition of “Shout” with Mr. Vaughan on saxophone, then in Act II singing “The Star Spangled Banner” as a pageant queen. Mr. Vaughan plays a variety of instruments, including, at one point, spoons.
The two women harmonize on live radio commercials, singing of the joy of tractor oil.
Patrons should come early, as there appears to be a pre-show, with the cast performing a few numbers for their invisible radio audience.
Everything in this show is pitch-perfect, not only musically, but theatrically.
The sound is clear and balanced (Adam Trummel), the costumes fun and sparkly (Stefanie Genda) and the set (Bert Scott) feels like stepping back into the 1950s.
The actors are all so skilled musically, switching instruments and proving proficient on each one. And they have the lightest of touch with their characters.
I confess I wasn’t expecting to enjoy “Buddy” quite as much as I did.
But wow, this cast really blows the roof off the place.
There’s a big party going on down at Florida Rep. It would be a shame if you missed it. ¦
In the KNOW
“Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story”
» When: through April 13
» Where: Florida Repertory Theatre
at the Historic Arcade Theatre, Bay
St. between Hendry and Jackson,
downtown Fort Myers
» Cost: $69
» Information: 239-332-4488