THEATRE REVIEW: “The Buddy Holly Story”



by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM [email protected]

The 2012 musical hit is back at Jacksonville’s Alhambra Theatre for a limited run through February 8, 2015. Alhambra patrons have responded with sellout houses to this season’s holiday offerings, which included both Buddy’s Rock and Roll epic, and the colorful “White Christmas.”

This is the story of how the young Buddy Holly from Lubbock, Texas turned the musical world on its ears during the course of three years in the 1950s, with his own special styling of Rock and Roll, a new genre. He was a charismatic band leader, and both a composer and a performer.

Rock and Roll was still new in 1959 when Buddy died tragically in an airplane crash. His influence was felt by the stars who followed him, including such greats as the Rolling Stones and the Beatles.

This musical, written by Alan James, debuted in 1989 and has remained popular all over the world. Holly produced over twenty great hits. The Alhambra’s New Year’s Eve audience loved the songs, filled with warmth and infectious melodies. Favorites included “Everyday,” “Peggy Sue,” and “Think It Over.”

We follow Buddy to his first recording session at Decca Records in Nashville, arranged by his mentor, country music disc jockey Highpockets (Ken Uibel). However, Decca wanted country music, and would not agree to record the rock and roll songs Buddy wanted to play. After he took his band to Norvajak Studios in New Mexico, which was managed by Norman Petty (Jon Coen), Holly’s career with The Crickets (Drew Bastain, John Hays, and Sean RileyDrew BastainJohn Hays) took off.

The end of Act One has the Buddy and the Crickets booked by mistake into the world famous Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York; only black performers were featured there at the time. Holly was a hit and his music and band totally captivated the audience. Also performing that evening at the Apollo was their featured singer, portrayed by the dynamically dramatic Tarra Conner Jones, who brought the house down with her powerful vocals. Ms. Jones has become an Alhambra favorite, with past performances in “Color Purple” and “Shrek.”

Act Two opens with Holly finding love at first sight and impulsively proposing to Maria (Jessella Jaramillo). He decides to find a new manager after a dispute with Petty about finances, and he and his band break up due to artistic differences. He needs money and agrees to appear on stages throughout the Midwest as part of a three-week tour. His last appearance is at the Surf Ballroom, in Clear Lake, Iowa, in February, 1959. Appearing with him are two big names in the business: the Big Bopper (Matthew Jay Campbell) with his hit song “Chantilly Lace,” and Ritchie Valens (David Marmaillo) and his signature song “La Bamba.” This segment featured a number of well-known songs including “Raining in My Heart,” “It Doesn’t Matter Anymore,” and “Johnny B Good”.

After the show, Holly, Valens, and The Big Bopper charter a small plane to take them to their next tour destination, even though it is snowing heavily. The plane crashed shortly after takeoff; the pilot and three passengers all died.

Dalen Gunn is fabulous as Buddy Holly. He not only looks like Holly but wears his initial geekiness on his sleeve like Holly and sounds like him when he sings. Gunn captures Holly’s ability to wrap himself in a song and make it his own. As he sings hit after hit with his rich polished voice, the songs feel as fresh as the day they were penned. And despite the fact that these songs are over fifty years old, the Alhambra audience responded wholeheartedly to the music, a savory stew of Rock and Roll roots.

A special note about the three brass instruments  amid the magnificent guitars and drums. Jarell Harris (saxophone), James Cowley (Trumpet), and Mason Taylor (Trombone) gave winning performances and added interesting musical variety, especially during the scene at the Apollo.

The splendidly matched ensemble, cast by Director/Producer Tod Booth, is a strong theatrical and musical team. Rounding out the cast are Rachel Anton, James T. Washburn, Jessica Hayden and Josie SherrodJessica HaydenJames T. WashburnRachel Anton.

The set by Dave Dionne on the Alhambra’s intimate stage made the audience members feel as though we were at an actual live concert of these talented musical theatre performers from the past.

A side note about Mrs. Buddy Holly. She was pregnant at the time of his death, and would have been with him except for his insistence she stay at home in her condition; she had a miscarriage shortly after his death. She eventually married again and all the while managed the Buddy Holly estate. She is now a divorced grandmother, who lives in Dallas, Texas.

Don’t miss this unique musical, one of the earliest and one of the best of the jukebox musicals. It offers a moving showcase that displays the works of Buddy Holly, a dedicated and creative musical pioneer. For reservations call 641-1212 or visit The Alhambra is at 12000 Beach Boulevard, in Jacksonville, Florida.




About Will Henley