What can you say at this point about the legendary Buddy Holly? There’s been a movie starring Gary Busey (not always factual), a song written at least partly in his honor (Don McLean’s “American Pie”), and, since its debut in 1989, Alan Janes’ musical salute Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story, now playing on Florida Studio Theatre’s Gompertz Theatre stage. Holly’s short but music-packed life has become a reference point for any star that dies too soon.
It may be that writer Janes realized he couldn’t reveal much we didn’t already know (or think we know) about Holly, the Lubbock, Texas singer-songwriter who helped to revolutionize American music in the late 1950s. Or else he just decided to present the most basic outlines of Holly’s life and let the music do the rest. Either way, the book of the show (directed ably by Jason Cannon) doesn’t do much to reach into Buddy’s inner life. It follows a familiar formula: Buddy, although barely 20 at the beginning of his recording career, already knows just what he wants and doesn’t want; he and his band The Crickets enjoy a meteoric rise to fame and fortune; he marries swiftly and all too briefly to Maria Elena; and he dies tragically in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959.
Buddy (played at FST by Michael Perrie Jr. with an enthusiasm and boyishness that quickly grows on you) is the sun around which all the planets orbit here. We barely get to know The Crickets (Jerry Allison, played by Seth Eliser; Joe B. Mauldin, played by music director Spiff Weigand); record producer Norm Petty (Ryan Halsaver, who also plays several other roles); or Maria Elena (Monica Rodrigues). There just isn’t time for character development when we have to get all the many great songs in.
Great they were, and still are, so much so that the talented musicians and actors here (yes, they’re all playing instruments), none of whom could have been born yet before Buddy died, genuinely seem inspired by them and to enjoy playing them. That especially becomes the case when we see The Crickets follow Jannie Jones’ ripping rendition of “Shout” as they become the first white act in the history of Harlem’s Apollo Theater (“Not Fade Away,” “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy”) and in the closing re-creation of Holly’s last concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, with the Big Bopper (Jimmy Lewis) and Ritchie Valens (Armando Gutierrez).
The songs from that segment—“Maybe Baby,” “It’s So Easy,” “Rave On,” Valens’ “La Bamba” and more—really get the audience moving and singing along, bringing them to their feet, especially as Gutierrez encourages their participation on “La Bamba.” Special kudos to Danielle Erin Rhodes for the multiple talents she displays on a tap dancing rendition of “America the Beautiful”; she also plays Norm Petty’s keyboardist wife Vi in the show. (Plus, there’s some hot sax from Troy Valjean Rucker.)
If you knew a lot about Holly before going into the theater, you wouldn’t learn anything new; if you knew absolutely nothing, you wouldn’t learn much beyond his music. When performed with such energy and skill, maybe that’s enough.
Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story continues through Jan. 2 at FST; for tickets, call (941) 366-9000 or go to floridastudiotheatre.org.