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Not Fade Away

Musical charts the rise and early demise of Lubbock’s favorite son

Photo: , License: N/A, Created: 2010:07:29 21:53:44

Matthew Schleigh looks just like Buddy Holly.

Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story

Written by Alan Janes and Rob Bettison
Through Sept. 12 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore

Once upon a time, in a faraway land called the 1950s, a man named Buddy Holly invigorated early rock ’n’ roll with fast-paced, hip-swiveling pop gems. Holly died young in that infamous plane crash that took the lives of J.P. “the Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens as well, and left behind a legacy that influenced powerhouses such as the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Rivers Cuomo. Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story, currently playing at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, is an energetic depiction of Holly’s brief career, highlighting his rise to fame with the help of lively musical performances from his repertoire.

Directed by Toby Orenstein and Ray Hatch, Buddy, which originally opened at London’s West End in 1989, begins by introducing Buddy (Matthew Schleigh) and his friends Joe Maulin (Steve Synk) and Jerry Allison (Kevin Eikenburg), as the Crickets, a small band from Texas trying to make it in rock ‘n’ roll. They are signed by Decca Records, a country and western label that restricts them from playing anything “experimental,” leading the band to drop their contract and join forces with record producer Norman Petty (Daniel McDonald). Petty encourages them to record whatever they like, so they pick up a fourth Cricket (Jordan Klein) and work on singles such as “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be The Day.”

The Crickets are an instant smash, and are invited to play at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, where the emcee (Ray Hatch) is shocked to find that the band members are white. Despite some initial hesitance, the Crickets play a successful set of hits including “Not Fade Away” and “Words of Love,” cementing themselves as the first white group to perform at the historically African-American theater.

When the Crickets move to New York to record a new album, Buddy meets Maria Elena Santiago (Elena Crall), a secretary from Puerto Rico with an austere aunt (Maria Egler). Buddy falls in love with Maria Elena instantly, and, despite their cultural and religious differences, the two decide to get married after their first date.

Buddy’s marriage, as well as his insistence that the Crickets take their musical experimentation even further, leads to a break-up with the group, and Buddy decides to go on the 1959 “Winter Dance Party” tour with the Big Bopper (Dan Sonntag) and Ritchie Valens (David Gregory) to tide himself and Maria Elena over monetarily until financial issues get sorted out. A pregnant Maria Elena begs him not to go, warning him that she has had terrible dreams of him perishing in a plane crash. But Buddy goes anyway, and the rest is history.

This production doesn’t have the same emotional depth as La Bamba, the 1987 Lou Diamond Phillips movie that similarly chronicled Valens’ brief life and sudden death, but it’s a fun look at a pivotal point in music history. The musical acts are set up as concert performances, which work well in Toby’s intimate space.

More importantly, the cast’s unyielding enthusiasm is infectious, making the play’s material all the more accessible. Schleigh, looking like a carbon copy of Holly in thick-rimmed glasses and checkered button-downs, bounces about the stage, belting out Holly’s big hits with a voice that sounds at least a little like the rock pioneer’s. It’s just as entertaining to watch Hatch, clad in a spangled suit and a James Brown-esque wig, strut across the stage as the emcee at the Apollo. Sonntag’s and Gregory’s respective appearances as the Big Bopper and Valens are brief but memorable, and the two put on an interactive performances of “Chantilly Lace” and “La Bamba,” dragging audience members onto the dance floor.

It should be mentioned, though, that it feels like Crall took pointers from Natalie Wood’s performance in West Side Story when it came to Maria Elena’s Puerto Rican accent, making her sound more like Marya Irina from Moscow instead. In addition, the constant concert acts sometimes feel more like a masquerade of ’50s Top 40 hits than respectful homages to a revolutionary musician, and Holly’s death is glossed over awkwardly. Regardless, Buddy is a fine ride, especially for those who feel like time-traveling for a few hours.

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