by Clark Groome
When Buddy Holly, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Havens died in a plane crash on February 3, 1959, that date became known as “The Day the Music Died.” Fortunately for Philadelphia theatergoers, the music is alive and well through July 15 at the Walnut Street Theatre where “Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story” is energizing audiences through July 22.
Holly was a Lubbock, Texas, native who in the course of 18 months changed the face of popular music. He had some help, This was also the time that Elvis Presley was beginning his career and Bill Haley and the Comets were performing the first major rock ‘n’ roll hit, “Rock Around the Clock.”
Holly (the phenomenal Christopher Sutton) and the Crickets (Jason Yachanin, Eli Zoller, Luke Smith) grew from a small-time country act into one the country’s most popular new groups. Holly’s hits included “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Not Fade Away,” “Oh Boy” and many others that have become standards. His music influenced many major performers who followed, from Bob Dylan to Elton John and from the Beatles to the modern big bands like Chicago.
In “Buddy” the story, while important and ultimately tragic, is secondary in import to the music. Told in a generally banal way, the book does have its impressive moments.
The most important event takes place when Buddy and the Crickets are booked into Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. Because of their music, they were believed to be a “colored” group. Imagine everyone’s surprise — and ultimate delight — when they turned out to be white and still wowed the audience.
Then there’s the reason the song “Cyndi Lou” had its name changed to “Peggy Sue.” The drummer’s girlfriend was Peggy Sue, and he thought if the song were named after her, he’d finally be able to make her a sexual partner. Mission accomplished.
For all the banality of the very well known story, the music never disappoints. The superb musical cast that director and choreographer Casey Husion has assembled enhances the music’s appeal. The superb designers are Robert Andrew Kovach (sets), Paul Black (lighting), Colleen Grady (costumes) and Matt Kraus (sound).
Christopher Sutton recreates the role he first performed at the Walnut, and for which he won a Barrymore Award, in 1999. It doesn’t look like he’s aged a day.
While it’s probably unfair to single out others in the cast, Scott Greer’s Big Bopper and Miquel Jarquin-Moreland as Havens are really superb.
Holly’s music, like most early rock ‘n’ roll, wasn’t the overamplified, electronically produced music into which it evolved. It’s really solidly based on the country, jazz and blues that preceded it, “Negro music played by white musicians.” While the guitars were often electrified, the rest of the instruments were acoustic, and amplification was minimal. So it’s disturbing that the Walnut has the music amplified to a level that is both annoying and not accurate to the period.
That aside, “Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story” lets us spend a couple of exciting hours with music that is at once familiar, enjoyable and important.
For tickets to “Buddy — TBuddy Holly Story,” playing through July 22 at the Walnut Street Theatre, call 215-574-3550 or 800-982-2787 or visit www.walnutstreettheatre.org
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