WINTER HAVEN – The opening scene in Theatre Winter Haven’s great new production of “The Buddy Holly Story” is not, technically speaking, a tease, but it sure does indicate that the theater knows who its audience is.
During a radio broadcast in Lubbock, Texas, in 1956, a group of singers, the Hayriders, gives the local audience what they want: “Rose of Texas,” a sweet, easygoing country ditty, unlikely to offend anyone listening in from the nearest church social.
When the next act steps up to the microphone, you wouldn’t expect anything but the same. The lead singer has a nerdy hairdo and over-sized glasses that make him look the class bookworm. But looks can be deceiving, and for aspiring rock singer and songwriter Buddy Holly, it doesn’t matter whether he has the appearance of a rock star. What’s important is that he can belt out a tune with gusto, and while this radio audience is used to mellow country songs, Buddy thinks they really need a sizzling introduction to rock ‘n roll. So he launches into “Ready Teddy,” and rocks that station.
The production quite literally gets off to an explosive start, and only gets better from there – funnier, livelier, more enticing as it goes on. As the play follows Buddy Holly’s rise from small town singer to meteoric star, it has a lot working in its favor, starting with the fact that it helps chronicle the birth of rock and roll in the 1950s, with a reminder of just how well those early hits stand up today. The songwriters of the 1950s knew what they were doing back then – the lyrics are simple but effective, and the melodies instantly toe-tapping and irresistible.
At the same time, this play gives us an unlikely hero to root for – as one critic notes, Buddy sure doesn’t approach the music world with the kind of sex appeal that Elvis has in abundance, so how is this guy with the awkward ties and the big glasses ever going to find a teenage audience that swoons over him? Well, raw talent helps – any guy who can write songs like “That’ll Be The Day,” “Not Fade Away” and “Peggy Sue” and can sing them with passion and energy, is likely to be a force to be reckoned with. As “The Buddy Holly Story” demonstrates, Buddy’s talent took him to the top even when he couldn’t quite compete with Elvis on the cover of those teen magazines.
Most importantly, for a story that ends in tragedy – Buddy’s fame only lasted a year and a half before the fateful night on Feb. 3, 1959 when he chartered a small airplane and was killed en route to Moorhead, Minnesota when their plane crashed soon after taking off – there’s nothing somber or downbeat about this production, which celebrates Buddy’s talent far more than it mourns his great loss. That’s because by celebrating the fact that he was a genuine pioneer in the field of rock and roll, it becomes crystal clear that Holly’s death truly was a great loss – “The day the music died,” as Don McLean sang in his poignant tribute to Holly, “American Pie.” Theatre Winter Haven does that with revved up performances of Holly’s best known songs, and they’re all still classics for a good reason.
But the show also captures his rise with considerable humor. Buddy was determined to succeed and not get discouraged, and he could also be hot tempered and too quick to dismiss the advice others had for him. But a lot of that is due to the fact that he knew he had talent, if anyone would simply listen.
That theme comes through in two great scenes, the first where Buddy and his band, the Crickets, cut some demos of his songs with the first producer who recognized their talent. Perfectionists to the very end, the scenes in that New Mexico recording studio are often hilarious to watch.
So is an even longer scene where Buddy and the Crickets agree to perform at the Apollo Theatre, located in Harlem, N.Y. – back in the days of racially segregated neighborhoods, when usually the only people who attended the Apollo – audiences and performers alike – were black. As the production points out, Buddy didn’t care about race and wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable when critics told him his songs sounded like “colored music.” At the Apollo, though, it wasn’t white critics who were warning Buddy that it was risky for four white guys to appear before a black audience, but the other black performers. Both of them are in for quite a surprise when the curtain rises at the Apollo, though.
There are certainly a lot of gifted performers who appear in this show, including Michael Tanner as Norman Petty, the producer who first spots Buddy’s talent, and Virginia Zechiel as his wife Vi, who makes plenty of coffee for the performers and has a good ear for music as well. But a show like this really can rise or fall balanced entirely on the back of one person: whoever plays the critical role of Buddy.
Daniel C. Jackson has completed more than 100 performances of this production, and it shows: he fits the role of Buddy beautifully, whether it’s showing us the ambitious singer who has to take calls from his mother because she wants to know if he’s had dinner yet, to the hard charging rocker who understands he’s got a winning song to deliver. Jackson completely commands the stage in a performance that’s not flashy or hyped up, but rather sweet, funny and positively soaring whenever Buddy steps up to the microphone.
Theatre Winter Haven recently had some fun with another 1950s tribute, “The Marvelous Wonderettes,” about four singers at a high school prom. This one is an even better production, one that doesn’t just trade on nostalgia but revels in the rise of an underdog into a top talent – a theatrical production for the “American Idol” generation.
“The Buddy Holly Story” is playing now through March 18 at Theatre Winter Haven at the Chain O’Lakes Complex, 210 Cypress Gardens Boulevard in downtown Winter Haven. Tickets are $22 for adults, and $19 for seniors and students. Shows run 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays, with 2:30 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. To learn more, call the box office at 863-294-SHOW, email TWHtickets@aol.com, or log on to www.TheatreWinterHaven.com.
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