Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre


Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story at Drayton

I have often maintained that the fare served up at Drayton Entertainment’s archipelago of Southwestern Ontario theatres serves as a palate cleanser for the hoity-toity, highbrow stuff on offer at the Stratford Festival. Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is a perfect case in point.

After sitting through Grand Magic (which I liked quite a bit), Casey and Diana (which I loved), and King Lear (which I did not), I found Buddy by Alan James a breath of fresh air. I emerged from this high-energy love fest for one of the original avatars of rock ’n roll feeling like Richard Smith-Jones after seeing Mamma Mia! in the first season of Slings and Arrows. “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

Buddy began its highly successful life not in Lubbock, Texas, Buddy Holly’s hometown, but in London, England of all places. The 1989 show helped kickstart the “jukebox musical” genre and ran in London’s West End for over 12 years. Unfortunately, its run at Drayton won’t be quite that long.

If you don’t know who Buddy Holly was (and I suspect many of the young people who whooped and cheered for Rent at Stratford do not) I pity you. Google him. Or pull him up on Spotify.

While Buddy dutifully tells the more or less accurate story of Buddy Holly’s all-too-brief life, that is hardly the point. The dramaturgy is, let’s be honest, not exactly Shakespearean.

There is enjoyment to be derived from the ranting of ministers preaching against the devil’s music. We can chuckle at music industry insiders confidently predicting that rock was dead on arrival. We can scoff when those same experts pronounce that Buddy Holly, in particular, has no future. I and my fellow oldsters in the packed house when I saw the show knew better.

But the real reason to see Buddy is the music. And there is a lot of it. Indeed, Buddy is an embarrassment of riches in the music department. Orsino says, if music be the food of love, play on, give me excess of it; but somehow we never get surfeit of it in Buddy and the appetite never sickens, let alone dies. [That was a Shakespeare reference for you intellectual types.]

Tyler Check is a spiffing Buddy Holly and he plays a mean guitar. The two original Crickets, Jerry Allison (Alex Panneton) on drums and Joe Maulden (Al Braatz) on bass fiddle are even more accurate doppelgängers of the originals. Tommy Allsup (Isaac Bell), the “fourth Cricket,” joined the group a little later.

Together, these four accomplished musicians form a much more than respectable Buddy Holly tribute band and their renditions of Holly standards that have become sort of the A-B-Cs of the American rock canon are uniformly excellent.

But wait! There’s more! With a few exceptions everyone in the cast plays a musical instrument, sometimes two, and plays them very well.

A highlight of the show is the Act One closer in which Buddy Holly and the Crickets, by now chart toppers, are booked into Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. According to Lake’s book, the management of the Apollo was under the impression that Buddy Holly and the Crickets were a Black group and the Crickets (but not Buddy) didn’t realize that Harlem was the capital of Black America.

That all seems highly improbable, but it makes for an amusing scene. Michael Clarke makes an impression as the Apollo’s master of ceremonies, who belts out “Shout” and then segues into Sam Cooke’s velvet “You Send Me.” He also plays a blazing saxophone.

Of course, in true show biz legend fashion, the boys are instant hits with the Harlem crowd.

Three comely young women take on a variety of roles in the Buddy Holly story. Mariah Campos shines as Buddy’s bride, wooed and won on a five-hour date. Darcy Stewart makes a delightfully daffy and mini-talented local girl in a George M. Cohan-esque baton twirling, flag waving number. And Dominique LeBlanc is impressive as both fiddler and boogie-woogie piano player. All of them take on other roles as the script requires.

Terry Barna and J. Sean Elliot represent the older generation in Buddy’s life. Barna is the silky-voiced and wonderfully named Hipockets Duncan, the Lubbock DJ who was an early mentor to Holly. Elliott plays a number of music industry honchos and that ranting preacher. Late in the show, they gamely take on roles as tuxedoed backup singers for the Cedar Lake, Iowa, concert on the night before the day the music died.

Yes, those of you who know the story know that the one thing Buddy:The Buddy Holly Story cannot provide is a happy ending.

But the full-throttle recreation of that show, emceed by Emry Tupper, headlined by Holly, the Big Bopper (Nick Sheculski), and Richie Valens (Nico Solarte), and backed by the entire company of musicians and dancers is a pretty good substitute. The Big Bopper sings “Chantilly Lace,” Richie Valens sings “La Bamba,” and Buddy Holly sings a number of favorites.

A voiceover dutifully informs us that they all died on an ill-fated small plane ride through a blizzard to their next gig, and Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is over.

Then the curtain call reprises the show for a cheering crowd, adding new material and interactions with the audience. This show is nothing if not generous with the music. Rock and roll heaven.

Adam Furtaro has directed well and Gino Berti has provided simple choreography that struck me as just right and faithful to the period. Sean Mulcahy has provided an ingenious set on an obviously limited budget; ditto the costumes by Jessica Pembleton and the lighting by Jeff JohnstonCollins.

Before I close, a shout out to “The Children’s Chorus,” a group of what I assume are local kids, who don’t have a shred of show-biz pretension about them. They fill in as enthusiastic fans at various stages of Buddy Holly’s career and add a charming note of verisimilitude to the proceedings.

Footnote: I saw Buddy with a packed house and, unless I am mistaken, not a single person there was under sixty. Wassup wi’ dat? Maybe Drayton should institute special “Bring Your Grandchildren” performances.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story continues at the Drayton Festival Theatre in Drayton through June 10, 2023. It then transfers to the King’s Wharf Theatre in Penetanguishene from June 15 to July 1, 2023.

For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Drayton Entertainment website.

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