Bass instinct: Gabrielle Porter, Devon Goffman and Erik Hayden in Merry-Go-Round’s Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.
At Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, Buddy scored big time with audiences during its 2006 area premiere, and it grabbed a Best Play, Summer Season honor by the august Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Awards committee. So it was a no-brainer for producing director Ed Sayles to bring Buddy
back for another engagement, with Erik Hayden repeating his 2006 acting
triumph in the lead, thus offering playgoers more of a good thing.
Things happen quick in the book by Alan
Janes and Rob Bettinson, perhaps to coincide with Holly’s own meteoric
rise. The first act chronicles Holly being mentored by Lubbock, Texas,
deejay Hipockets Duncan (Peter Cormican), which leads to a contract at
country label Decca Records, but the Nashville cats write off Holly’s
sonic slices as “jungle music.” It’s one of several instances where the
play deals a race card; Holly‘s early comment that his rock has that
“colored feel“ also paves the way for the first act’s climax in which
Holly performs at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre.
Holly and his other buddies—including
drummer Jerry Allison (Chris McBurney) and bassist Joe B. Mauldin
(Devon Goffman), the initial backup band known as the Crickets—find a
kindred spirit with record producer Norman Petty (Mark Sanders), out of
Clovis, N.M. The play reaches an emotional apex of sorts when the
Crickets, combined with a new recruit, guitarist Niki Sullivan (David
Finch), embark on an all-night session to get Holly’s unique sound
painstakingly preserved on recording masters. Mythmaking merges with
musicmaking, with snippets of biography dropped in that highlight the
genesis of key songs, such as Holly getting cajoled to change a
proposed track’s name of “Cindy Lou”—because Jerry has a female
acquaintance named Peggy Sue whom he’d like to impress. Let rock
historians parse out the particulars: Under Kate Swan’s swift
direction, the entertaining scene percolates with gee-whiz enthusiasm.
The second act begins with Holly
romantically winning over a publishing office secretary, Maria Elena
(Chelsea Lovett), during a whirlwind five-hour courtship. But moments
of drama inevitably surface, including Holly’s split from his Crickets
and Petty, plus Maria Elena chafing at the decade’s prejudices toward
Puerto Ricans. By the way, Maria Elena keeps experiencing nightmares
that feature horrific fireballs. (Uh-oh.) Yet authors Janes and
Bettinson are wise enough to sidestep the downbeat pitfalls, with a
grand finale that recreates much of Holly’s final concert at an Iowa
ballroom, thus ensuring that the legend never really dies.
It would be too easy to proclaim that
Erik Hayden’s incarnation of Holly carries this show, although he’s
certainly too conspicuous to ignore. The actor builds a head of steam
from the get-go, as he conveys Holly’s aggressively ambitious drive and
I-gotta-be-me mantra with charisma and conviction. Hayden allows
audiences to glimpse what’s underneath his iconic figure, yet he’s also
leading-man handsome enough to make Holly’s bespectacled geek-chic
image look downright hunky. Hell, he can even strut across the stage
Chuck Berry-style for an inspired duck walk.
Sure, Hayden owns the role as he did
three years earlier, but there’s plenty else going on here. Music
director Michael Croiter merits plaudits for kicking this show into
harmonic overdrive, as the set list veers from country to ballads to
rhythm’n’blues to balls-to-the-wall rockers. And the supporting actors
aid in the heavy lifting, with some switching between uttering lines of
dialogue to singing in backup quartets, while others handle musical
instruments. Croiter and company must be doing something right: One
matinee had rows of seniors (some obviously reliving teenhood memories)
on their feet and applauding, their noggins swaying to and fro like
bobbleheads during a hurricane.
Among the more conspicuous showstoppers in Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,
Gabrielle Porter is dynamite as the Apollo songbird who inserts some
welcome soul into the proceedings. And the joint really jumps when the
Big Bopper (Ryan G. Dunkin, who also doubles as a clueless Decca exec
in an early scene) receives a big sendoff as he delivers his big hit
“Chantilly Lace.” Dunkin brings down the house in a hellaciously
choreographed number that, like the show itself, is lively, loud and
appropriately larger than life.
This production runs through Sept. 30. See Times Table for information.