Americans often have a difficult time letting go. Elvis, Marilyn, JFK, James Dean – will we ever get over them? Though Buddy Holly did not exist at these lofty heights, there's something about a rising star extinguished too soon that sticks in our gut. A native of Lubbock, Texas, Holly rose to fame in the 1950s with such hits as "Peggy Sue,", "Oh, Boy!" and "That'll Be The Day" only to die tragically in a plane crash in February 1959 at the age of 23.
His short life has been made into a hit musical, "The Buddy Holly Story", which debuted in London, 1989. At long last, the production has come to San Francisco under the loving direction of Stephen Moorer. With the talented Travis Poelle (a San Jose native, no less) in the title role, the production is an enthusiastic homage to the bespeckled rock and roller who was determined to do things his way.
As the story goes, Holly is a young musician, who, along with his faithful two-man band, The Crickets, struggles to answer the same irresistible call that Elvis succumbed. Going against the country music grain, he stubbornly turns to rock and roll time and time again, much to the frustration of management. When he and The Crickets sign with Decca Records in Nashville, Holly's resistance to the country music party line only deepens.
Eventually, they meet up with Producer Norman Petty who lets Holly do things his way – thick glasses and all. In no time, they become a huge hit and Holly, a household name. The production wisely focuses most on the renditions of Holly's original material with some interesting vignettes in between, including a last-minute change of song title – from "Cindy Lou" to "Peggy Sue" to please The Crickets' lovestruck drummer.
Brilliant was the depiction of the band's performance at the famed Apollo Theatre. In 1958, they were booked in the mistaken belief that Holly and The Crickets were black, which they most certainly were not. As Tommy – the fourth Cricket, played by Don Dally, is dragged onto the stage, he wails, "We're gonna die!" as the backstage brothers laugh uproariously. It's the perfect reminder of why rock and roll was so scandalous in its infancy; because of its raucous nature, it was deemed music of "the coloreds." Those who felt the beat, such as Holly, simply didn't have time to wait for the civil rights era – the urge to groove was immediate.
Holly's hyper-fast marriage to Mexican receptionist, Maria Elena Santiago, played by the versatile Lucinda Serrano, marks a heavy break-up with The Crickets, a band that inspired an English group to chose their band name as an homage, hence, The Beatles. Of course, the final performance with fellow doomed musicians, The Big Bopper and Richie Valens, brought down the house. The night I attended, the audience was treated to a surprise appearance by Holly's widow, Maria Elena, who is now a spunky grandmother. Maria gave the show her blessing and appreciation as the actors blushed behind her. Let's face it, a review from the former Mrs. Holly, quite frankly, upstages anything I could possibly offer you here.
"The Buddy Holly Story" is playing in San Francisco at the Post Street Theatre. Bring your dancing shoes.
© 2004 - Heather Clisby - Air Date: 6/16/04
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story