BWW Reviews: The Day the Music Lived: MSMT Opens Season with The Buddy Holly Story
To witness an entire audience on its feet, joyfully clapping, singing, and dancing into the aisles, one might have imagined rocking at Woodstock rather than in the picturesque college town of Brunswick, ME. But, indeed, the exuberance and energy that filled the Pickard Theatre on the Bowdoin campus was a tribute to the triumphant production of The Buddy Holly Story with which Maine State Music Theatre opened its 56th season.
The jukebox musical which recounts the last three years in the life of rock legend Charles Hardin "Buddy" Holly is, in many ways a perfect vehicle to showcase this company's strengths and its new optimistic and visionary artistic direction. Buddy features a largely youthful and hugely talented cast of music theatre singer-actor-musicians, dazzling production values, and demonstrates the company's ability to forge an intense connection with its audience.
The 1989 show is one of the best beloved of its genre, not only for the era of lost innocence and incipient rebellion which it conjures up, but also for the strength of its tragic, yet heartwarming story. The book by Alan Janes weaves together the storybook succession of events which catapulted Holly to stardom with wit and warmth, creating characters who manage to avoid both stereotype and idolization. The score, comprised of Holly's hits, as well as those of Richie Valens, J. P. Richardson, the Big Bopper, and Dion, is compelling not only because of Holly's musical genius, but also because it allows a glimpse into his creative process. The musical allows songs like Peggy Sue (originally Cindy Lou) to develop almost as leitmotifs throughout the show, and it contrasts Holly's new sound with the country western tradition, thereby reminding the current generation of how truly revolutionary his Rock and Roll was in the 1950s.
Music supervisor Jason Wetzel, together with Music Director Aaron McAllister, guide the ensemble of musical theatre performers, most of whom are also accomplished onstage musicians, with a superb sense of style. By the last big set of songs which concludes the second act, all the actor-musicians are onstage, not only playing their hearts out, but also turning their music into memorable characterizations.
Director/choreographer Donna Drake stages the production with a fluid musicality, shaping the story arc with empathetic sincerity, and creating characters who are not mere cardboard cutouts of Rock legends.
The cast uniformly rises to the musical and dramatic challenges of the piece. As Buddy Holly, Andy Christopher wears the role like a second skin. A veteran of the national tour and other Buddy productions, he projects a disarming blend of Holly's brashness and innocence, toughness and sweetness, perseverance and vulnerability. Not only does he inhabit the songs with panache, but he also proves himself a talented guitarist. And while he has the charisma needed for the big numbers, he is also capable of stillness and a luminous interiority in the quiet moments. Indeed, he shines in the ballads, especially True Love Ways, Holly's love song to his wife Maria Elena.
Rounding out the original Crickets Trio, Matthew J. Riordan plays a convincing backup guitar; Joe Cosmo Cogen is a loveable, goofy Jerry Allison, and Sam Weber delivers a show stopping turn as bassist Joe B. Maudlin. Weber uses his bass almost as a human partner, dancing fireworks, and bringing an endearing, sometimes outrageous comic twist to the musician's character.
Xander Chauncey delivers Ritchie Valens' La Bamba with verve, gyrating and singing with mesmerizing abandon. Jayson Elliot lends his powerful voice and imposing stage presence to the Big Bopper, delighting the audience with a rousing Chantilly Lace. Jayne Trinette and Troy Valjean Rucker as the Apollo performers contribute a stirring soul sound.
Steve Gagliastro uses his deep, mellifluous voice to great effect as the Lubbock radio announcer, Hipockets Duncan, while Luke Darnell makes a credible manager and record label owner, Norman Petty - neither villain nor visionary. Lori Eure gives a deliciously delineated performance as his wife Vi - ditsy, sexy, and swinging. Ester Stilwell fleshes out her brief scenes as Holly's wife, Maria Elena, with a gentle dignity. The remainder of the ensemble, who all contribute incisive cameos, also coalesce beautifully as the Clear Lake Band.
A shared production with the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA, Robert Andrew Kovach's scenic design has been skillfully adapted to the Pickard stage. As in last year's Dream Girls, Kovach opts for an open stage framed by a series of sparkling prosceniums which serve to alternate seamlessly between backstage and onstage venues. Jeffrey S. Koger's lighting design reflects all the colorful exuberance of the music, at the same time that it conveys the contrasting sense of void and loss at the end of the play.
Colleen Grady's costumes artfully evoke the 50s, while Colin Whitely's sound design manages an expert balance -much improved from the previous season -between singers and onstage orchestra. He also creates unbroken transitions between Holly's and the others' recorded music and the live performances.
Near the end of the show, three solitary microphones, bathed in slivering shafts of light, pay sober homage to the young artists lost in that 1959 February plan crash. A lump rises in the throat; it catches for a moment just before Holly's music comes to the rescue for the rousing finale.
It was Don McLean's song about the Holly tragedy which coined the phrase "The Day the Music Died." But anyone who was in the Pickard Theatre last night might have trouble believing that this music was truly dead. In the remarkable hands of MSMT's cast and creative team, Buddy Holly's vibrant legacy is very much alive!
Photos Courtesy of Maine State Music Theatre, Urdaneta Photography