An impressive array of talent, a feast of 1950s sounds



The tragically short life of a rock-`n'-roll pioneer is dramatized in Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story, running at Toby's Dinner Theatre through Sept. 3.

Remembered for his gold disc, "Peggy Sue," and his black-rimmed glasses, Holly died in a 1959 plane crash with two other rock singers, Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson, known as the "Big Bopper."

In a national career that lasted only a few years, he wrote an impressive number of hit songs, some of which have become standards. At Toby's, his music is presented in authentic style by a cast of multitalented performers directed by Toby Orenstein and Shawn Kettering.

The action begins in 1956 in Lubbock, Texas. A hometown group, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, are performing live on a country music station.

The DJ, Hipockets Duncan, complains that their songs are getting to sound too "colored," too much like the rock style that was beginning to be played. Buddy takes that as a compliment, but Duncan insists that local listeners are not ready for his music.

Wanting to help, he steers Buddy and the Crickets to Norman Petty, who runs a recording studio in New Mexico. Petty has a reputation for taking chances. He signs them, and the boys get their first taste of success with "Every Day."

Soon their recordings -- "Peggy Sue," "Not Fade Away," "Words of Love" and "Oh Boy" -- are being played on radio stations across the country. They find themselves No. 1 on the charts.

It is a matter of historical record that Buddy Holly and the Crickets were the first white group to play the Apollo Theater in Harlem. The booker had assumed, from hearing their records, that Holly and the Crickets were black.

A scene at the theater depicts the racial tension that emerged when they arrived. According to the script, the audience loved them as soon as they started to play.

In real life, it took several performances before black fans accepted the group -- but accepted it was.

In a New York music publisher's office, Holly meets a Latina receptionist, Maria Elena, and falls in love with her. Her aunt/guardian opposes the match because of cultural differences. The script makes a point of depicting Holly as free of prejudice. He wins the aunt's consent, and the couple marries.

Eventually, "Peggy Sue" goes gold, but success brings dissension. Buddy claims his musicians are getting slack. Maria Elena feels Norman Petty and his wife, Vi, are prejudiced against her.

Finally Buddy decides he is becoming too big for Petty, and he signs with a New York manager. Starting a new career as a solo act, he plans to go on tour with two other rising performers.

Portraying the singers, Matthew Schleigh (Buddy Holly), Shawn Kettering (the "Big Bopper") and Jeffrey Glen Hitaffer (Ritchie Valens) bring to their parts an impressive combination of singing, playing and acting talent.

Strong support is provided by Phil Olejack (Hipockets Duncan), Darren McDonnell (Norman Petty), Esther Covington (Vi Petty), Virginia Cavaliere (Maria Elena) and, as performers at the Apollo, Ray Hatch, Jessica Coleman and Jason Wilson.

The last half-hour of the show represents Holly's final concert at Clear Lake, Iowa. It is snowing heavily, and road conditions are bad. Anxious to get to the next date in Moorhead, Minn., the three singers agree to fly there after the concert.

On stage the "Big Bopper" sings "Chantilly Lace" and Valens does his signature number, "La Bamba."

Holly performs "Maybe Baby," "Peggy Sue Got Married," "Heartbeat," "Raining in My Heart," "It Doesn't Matter Anymore," "Rave On" and Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode."

Back in Lubbock, DJ Duncan reports the plane crash to his listeners. Holly was 32.

Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story is a feast of 1950s sounds. Can today's teens accept music that's a half-century old? On the night we attended, the young people in the audience seemed to love it. So did the grown-ups, who remembered the words and sang along.

Toby's Dinner Theatre, 5900 Symphony Woods Road, Columbia, presents "Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story" through Sept. 3. Evenings: Doors open at 6 p.m. Mondays through Saturdays, 5 p.m. Sundays. Matinees: Doors open at 10:30 a.m. Sundays and Wednesdays. Reservations are required. Information or reservations: 410-730-8311 or 800-888-6297.

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