Nearly 60 years after Buddy Holly’s tragic plane crash death Don McLean proclaimed “the day the music died” in his pervasive ’70s hit “American Pie,” The Barn Theatre has magnificently brought both Holly and his music back to life in “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.
Written by Brit Alan James, “Buddy” is credited as being the original jukebox musical, spurring a generation of musicals capitalizing on beloved popular music of days gone by, such as Mamma Mia, We Will Rock You, and Million Dollar Quartet.
People absolutely love these musicals cum tribute rock shows, and Buddy works especially well at The Barn.
Its success rests squarely on the shoulders of the actor who plays Buddy Holly and carries the show, and Andy Christopher is as good as it gets. He’s played the role since 2010 in the national tour as well as regional productions all over the country, and his mastery shows.
This native Texan — from Lubbock, no less, like Holly himself — positively channels the legend. He embodies his nerdy fresh-faced look with trademark horn-rimmed glasses, his exuberant defiance, his self-deprecating yet confident swagger and charm, as well as his West Texas accent, trademark stuttering vocals, falsetto, and percussive guitar playing with jaw-dropping authenticity. The Fender Stratocaster he plays with gusto is an extension of his body, and his looks, acting, singing, and playing are a dead ringer for the man who died tragically in 1959.
And equally remarkable is how beautifully the talented resident Barn company support Christopher’s stellar virtuoso performance and match his level of excellence by creating believable characters. Brendan Ragotzy, an expert director of rock musicals, hits it out of the park with this cast, all fantastic musicians in their own right, many who also play instruments on stage.
Technical elements here are interesting but not distracting, and also work to keep the music the main star of the show. Musical Director Matt Shabala and much of his killer band are on stage for much of the show; and a huge turntable with giant sheet music spins center stage, aiding transitions between scenes.
The show’s narrative traverses Holly’s three-year recording career, from a radio station in Lubbock, Texas, to Nashville to New Mexico to New York City, and ends with a blowout barn burner of a show, recreating the last time he, the Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens ever played, in the Winter Dance Party Tour, the night before their plane went down. Charlie King and Jamey Grisham straight up channel the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens respectively, both physically and in terms of exuberant energy and skillful musical performance.
In this show, there’s little backstory or insight into Holly’s inner workings, unlike a show such as Jersey Boys, though it dramatizes some amusing and well-documented highlights such as when Holly and his band were booked at the Apollo because they were thought to be black, how the song Peggy Sue got its name, and how Holly got engaged to his wife within five hours of meeting her.
But the focus is on the music, and there’s just enough of a plot to effectively string together all the hits, either played live or via recordings of the company performing them. And they’re all there: That’ll Be the Day, Peggy Sue, Not Fade Away, Everyday, It’s So Easy, Rave On, Maybe Baby, Oh Boy, and True Love Ways, plus a couple favorites from the era that weren’t his, such as Shout! (another highlight featuring an astounding performance by astoundingly big-voiced guest artist Emily Agy), Chantilly Lace, and Johnny B. Goode.
It’s terrific, practically timeless music made even better performed live by stellar musicians. This is the reason to see the show. They rock so hard and so well, the Barn audience is transported back in time, and Baby Boomer ticket holders become screaming, hip-shaking teenagers again, if only for a Wednesday night in Augusta, Michigan, transformed by a powerfully evocative bunch of actor musicians who make it feel like 1959.
Barn Theatre School
13351 M-96, Augusta
June 27-July 9