By Howard Shapiro
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER
If you don’t come out of the Walnut Street Theatre humming these days, then you just don’t hum at all. For me it was “That’ll Be the Day,” but then I turned to “Peggy Sue,” which will still be in my head next week this time, the way these things go.
The Walnut’s new main-stage show is Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story and what you see in that title is precisely what you get — both the everyday and quirky stuff about the short life of the singer-composer who was instrumental in creating and delivering rock and roll to a nation of teenagers who craved the new music.
His songs, with simple lyrics and effusive melodies, are as catchy today as they were more than a half-century ago. At the Walnut, where most of the talented cast is its own the on-stage orchestra, the show is a remarkable display of acting, singing dancing and musicianship, all rolled into the one.
In 15 months during his early ‘20s, Buddy Holly — a gangly boy with trademark black-rim glasses — had 10 hits and then, in a small-plane crash in 1959, he was gone, along with fellow touring performers J.P. “Big Bopper” Richardson Jr. (he sang “Chantilly Lace”) and Latino teenage smash Ritchie Valens (“La Bamba”). The date of that crash — Feb. 3, 1959 — has come to be called “the day the music died” after a song by Don McLean.
But the singers live vibrantly in Buddy. The production, staged and choreographed with hip-swiveling ‘50s flair by Casey Hushion with John Daniels’ musical direction, is so polished that by the last part, it doesn’t matter that show turns a bit awkwardly from a story into a concert in Iowa on the last night of the singers’ lives; the high-level performances would make a fine concert no matter the context.
Holly is played and sung by Christopher Sutton with an uncomplicated sincerity that marked the man and an aw-shucks bobble-headed showmanship — Holly was a bumpkin from Lubbock, Texas, and he knew what he wanted from record producers and wasn’t afraid to say it. Holly’s wife is played by Sutton’s actual wife, Lyn Philistine and the Crickets, who backed Holly, are Jason Yachanin, Eli Zoller and Luke Smith.
A host of folks get their spotlights — Aaron Cromie playing several instruments and roles, Scott Greer as The Bopper and Miguel Jarquin-Moreland as Valens, Danielle Herbert as a performer at the Apollo, and Sarah Hund offering a memorable version of the national anthem. Anthony Lawton is the radio dee-jay who brings Holly to the airwaves, and Charlie DelMarcelle handles a number of roles.
Buddy first ran in London in 1989 and stayed for a dozen years. Its 1990 Broadway version lasted only 240 performances. Perhaps the British were more forgiving about a show that uses some expressions that came later than the ‘50s, or in many different scenes asks audiences not once, but twice, to holler that they’re having a good time. And maybe they were so impressed by all the true details in Buddy that they overlooked what feels like a cheap device, when his wife is frightened by a recurring dream of fire bursting in the sky.
For whatever reason, it wasn’t such a hit in London because Brits like to have more fun. If the original production was anything like this one, though, they had plenty.
Contact staff writer Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, firstname.lastname@example.org, or #philastage on Twitter.
Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story: Through July 15 on the Walnut Street Theatre main stage, 825 Walnut St. Tickets: $10-$95. Information: 215-574-3550 or www.walnutstreettheatre.org.