‘Buddy Holly Story’ a snappy return to roots of rock ‘n’ roll at the Weston Playhouse

Billy Finn as Buddy Holly gets some air, surrounded by, from left, Lena Richard as Marlena on the sax, Ben Johnson as Jerry Allison on drums, Matt Cusack as Joe B on bass and Jason Cohen as Tommy on guitar. <small>Weston Playhouse photos by Rob Aft.</small>

Billy Finn as Buddy Holly gets some air, surrounded by, from left, Lena Richard as Marlena on the sax, Ben Johnson as Jerry Allison on drums, Matt Cusack as Joe B on bass and Jason Cohen as Tommy on guitar. Weston Playhouse photos by Rob Aft.

By Bob Behr
©2023 Telegraph Publishing LLC

You can count on the Weston Theater Company for solid, entertaining musicals, but with this production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story the folks at Weston have definitely hit the jackpot. Buddy is the story of
three exciting years: a young man’s fast-lane path to rock ‘n’ roll fame in the late ’50s before his death at age 22 – the same years Elvis Presley was on the rise. And though Holly’s personal and musical roots were very similar to Presley’s, he succeeded in creating his own sound.

Written by Alan Janes, Buddy opened in London in 1989 and ran for more than 12 years. The show also toured internationally and had a Broadway run. Holly’s personal story has fascinated generations of rock music lovers, and not just because of the tragic plane crash in which he died with two other well-known musicians, Richie Valens and “The Big Bopper” J.P. Richardson.

Holly’s music was unique, irreplaceable. As Don McLean said in his hit song “American Pie,” Holly’s death on Feb. 3, 1959 was “the day the music died.”

Weston’s take on Buddy is fresh and interesting, with actor-singer-musician Billy Finn delivering a terrific Buddy Holly. Finn easily jumps into the role of the nerdy teenager wearing thick black eyeglasses who transforms into a sophisticated rocker — and still wearing the eyeglasses. Finn has a wonderfully strong, clear voice that helped me listen to every word and connect with the simple truths about love and life embedded in Holly’s lyrics.

But the genius of Holly’s songs lies in their sound too, not just their words. In songs like “Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be The Day,” “It’s So Easy To Fall In Love,” and “Every Day,” Holly matches sound and rhythm to sense. It’s a perfect set-up for ear worms. Nice ear-worms, not the annoying ones.

Every day, it’s a getting closer
Goin’ faster than a roller coaster
Love like yours will surely come my way’
A-hey, a-hey, hey

The late ’50s were important years in rock history. Holly’s songs – and those of his contemporaries who are also showcased in Buddy – range from smooth, elegant ballads to staccato, hard-driving rock anthems. And this is where Weston’s ensemble of 10 talented actors comes in. Together, they take charge of the stage and never let go of the reins. Just one example is the way Lena Richard and Isaiah Reynolds energized the crowd on Saturday night with the Isley Brothers’ iconic “Shout,” the musical equivalent of fireworks.

Matt Cusack, who portrays one of Holly’s back-up musician-singers early in the show, returns later as The Big Bopper with a hilarious and over-the-top performance of “Chantilly Lace,” and Adrian Lopez – channeling Ritchie Valens – is equally electric with “La Bamba.” Of course, spotlighting these songs near the end of Buddy is particularly touching because Valens and Richardson died with Holly.

The music never dies in this dance-worthy production. From left, Isaiah Reynolds as Tyrone and Lena Richard.

Maggie Hollinbeck, Ariana Papaleo, Jason Cohen and Ben Johnson are everything, everywhere, all at once – singing their hearts out and playing back-up instruments with great expertise.

I must mention David Bonanno, a Weston veteran who proves his multi-talented-ness by changing his hat several times to depict Holly’s various managers and record producers – finally morphing into a back-up singer at the end of the show. Though a couple years older than the other back-ups, his sassy moves surely taught them a thing or two.

Smartly directed by Meredith McDonough, Buddy is fast-moving and engaging. With costumes that scream the 1950s and an ingenious stage-frame replicating a huge, spinning vinyl 45, this production transports its audience to the days when Buddy Holly rocked and ruled.

There’s a human drama here – but, really, what takes center stage is music and the joy and tears it produces. In effect, Buddy is a rock ‘n’ roll concert. Treated to something like 30 songs (I lost count!) in less than two hours, Saturday night’s audience kept jumping to its feet and making noise like they were teenagers again. Oh yeah, baby, it’s rock ‘n’ roll.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story will be on stage at the Playhouse on Weston’s Green until Sunday, July 16.
Discounts are available for Vermont residents. For tickets, click here or call the box office at 802-824-5288.

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About the Author: Andover resident Bob Behr is a retired English teacher and non-profit fundraiser. He has written about theater, food and local culture for community newspapers in Philadelphia and Vermont.

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