NSMT’s ‘Buddy Holly Story’: the music never died

Matt McClure (Buddy Holly) and the cast of BUDDY – THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY playing at North Shore Music Theatre thru August 28. Photo © Paul Lyden

By Rich Fahey

BEVERLY – No less than the great musical storyteller Don McLean sang in his immortal tune “American Pie” about “The Day The Music Died.”

On February 3, 1959, American rock and roll musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and “The Big Bopper” J. P. Richardson were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, together with pilot Roger Peterson. 

It cast a pall over a burgeoning musical genre called rock ‘n roll. But the tragic story also spawned yet another work in a theatrical genre called the jukebox musical – a work that comes complete with a musical score guaranteed to please.

The North Shore Music Theatre’s production of “Buddy”: The Buddy Holly Story”  is a bit short on story because the title character was only 22 when he died, and had barely scratched the surface of his talents.

Buddy Holly (Matt McClure) and Hipockets Duncan (James Beaman) in “The Buddy Holly Story.” Photo © Paul Lyden

As a result   his life – coming out of the sleepy West Texas city of Lubbock in the late 50’s —  didn’t have the many twists and turns and ups and downs of other artists  who have headlined similar musicals. The good news is he did pack a boatload of iconic songs into a short period.

If you have the story, pound the story. If you have the music, pound the music.   Writer Alan James and the producers decided to pound the music, which was a good decision because so many of the tunes are right in the wheelhouse of the Baby Boomers eager to hear the tunes they grew up with again.

And, with all due respect to McLean and many others, the music never died. And when it is energetically and enthusiastically performed by a cadre of talented singer-dancers who also play their instruments, it often threatens to blow the roof off the theater.

Matt McClure makes for a doppelganger as Buddy – tall, slim, with the trademark thick glasses, cocksure of his talent and confident of finding success in his beloved rock ‘n  roll. As a musician, he was the real thing, writing, arranging and singing his own hits and was a major influence on many popular artists. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.

“Buddy” details the artist’s struggle to break out of an area where country music had a chokehold, his clashes with record companies due to his brash nature, and brief six-month marriage to his beloved Maria Elena (Maria Cristina Posada Slye), who was pregnant at the time of his death and tragically suffered a miscarriage.

McClure as Holly is ably backed up by the Crickets — drummer Jerry Allison (Seth Aliser), bass player Joe B. Maudlin (Brian Russell Carey), and rhythm guitarist Tommy Allsup (Danny Adams). Holly is credited with popularizing the two guitar, drums and bass set-up he preferred.

They perform a string of hits that are included on anyone’s list of the top songs of the 1950’s, including such all-timers as “That’ll Be the Day,” “Everyday, “Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy.”

Marcos Santana both choreographs and directs with an eye for performers who can do it all – act, sing, dance, and, in many cases, play an instrument.

Craig Underwood as The Big Bopper in “The Buddy Holly Story.” Photo © Paul Lyden

There are some strong supporting efforts, including Beverly’s own James Beaman as DJ Hipockets Duncan, Buddy’s friend and advisor. “Hello, bay-bee!” Craig Underwood gives vivid life to The Big Bopper, J.P. Richardson, with a whirlwind re-telling of “Chantilly Lace” and Ryan Reyes has a nice turn as the doomed Valens and his classic “La Bamba.”

Kent M. Lewis is record producer Norm Petty, who helped Holly refine his sound and become a star, and Jaelle Laguerre and David LaMarr are performers at Harlem’s Apollo Theater who are skeptical the whiter-than-white Holly and his Crickets can win over the crowd.

In Act II, without much of the story left to be told, the decision was made to re-create that last fateful Dance Party in Clear Lake, Iowa, which also featured Dion and the Belmonts. And somebody made the great decision to include the entire company in a rousing rendition of another classic, “Johnny B Goode,” which had theater-goers up and out of their seats.

The events of that fateful night are legend. Waylon Jennings allowed The Big Bopper to take his place on the plane because he felt the big man needed more room than the bus had. Valens won a coin flip with Allsup to take the final seat, even though he had an intense fear of flying.

Still, for a few hours each night through Aug. 28, the clock is turned back and the songs explode onstage, sounding much better than they did on your scratchy transistor radio.

No matter your age, come ready to rock ‘n roll. Buddy would have wanted it that way.

The North Shore Music Theatre production of “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.” Written by Alan James. Directed and choreographed by Marcos Santana. Music direction by Milton Granger. At the North Shore Music Theatre through Aug. 28. Nsmt.org.