By John Dwyer
Is Hunter Foster really Rumpelstiltskin?
It seems so — he has turned straw into gold.
I thought I knew “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.” I saw the original incarnation back in 1990, and the reason I remember it so well is, quite frankly, because it wasn’t really that good.
And I got into an argument about it with a good friend of mine at a theater party during previews that he organized. My negative opinion may have been seen as ungracious, but it was shared by Frank Rich of the New York Times. Successive re-mountings have cut the script and made it tighter but, it seems, the cuts were perhaps not the right ones, and the acting was overly broad. Thus, I have never seen nor heard of a great production for this particular theatrical vehicle.
So, when I saw that Bucks County Playhouse had this number on their roster, my heart sank. I thought, “Oh, my god! I have to waste my time again watching this thing!”
But I did have one hope, and that was in Hunter Foster, for whom I have great respect as a director.
Well, that respect has grown in leaps and bounds. A truly great production of “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” has finally arrived. Foster has made all the right cuts, and has taken at least 40 minutes out of the almost 3-hour original. This significance of a tighter script cannot be overstated in providing a 100% better audience experience.
Before, there was no engaging story line due to excessive schtick that the playwright forced upon us. Foster has excised that, and made “The Buddy Holly Story” about an individual who we can empathize with, admire, and who captures our imagination — something that was not on display 25 years ago.
He has, on top of that, cast the show brilliantly, and the acting is spot-on. Could there be a better Buddy Holly than John Dewey? I don’t think so. The passion of a bespectacled young man in his teens and early twenties, whose youth refuses to believe in boundaries, is perfectly exemplified by the beautifully authentic performance of Dewey.
He also captures the softer side of the man, and the love he had for his wife, Maria Elena. It is important to make this relationship real for the audience. The play hinges on rounding out the title character and, certainly, love and family relationships need to be explored. This aspect has never been emphasized as it is in this production. The chemistry between John Dewey and Natalie Haro (as Maria) is tender and nuanced. The duo’s acting skills have allowed this relationship to take up a larger space in our consciousness.
What most people will talk about, however, is the technical skill of this cast. All are excellent musicians and singers. There is no orchestra in the pit, because all the accompaniment is played by Buddy Holly and the Crickets, which is to say, the cast. We have Zach Cossman as Jerry Allison on drums, James David Larson as Joe B. Mauldin on bass, and Maximilian Sangerman as Tommy Allsup, playing guitar and trumpet. When not playing other roles during the show, Kent Lewis (Norm Petty and Duetche) is on guitar, Andrew Frace (Hipockets and Duncan) on saxophone, and Elizabeth Nestlerode (Vi Petty and MD Associate) is on piano.
The sound is not just good, it rocks. The cast loves to play their instruments and you feel it. The vibe is not just acting. They are truly jamming. They are truly rocking. They are playing with it. They are having fun. They are lifting the audience with them. It is raw. It is exciting. And it is great theater.
I also want to commend the producers for choosing this show for this venue. Autobiographical musicals about musicians are often simplistic and need a smaller house. Back in the 1990s, the Schubert Theatre dwarfed this simple story. Bucks County Playhouse has finally done this play justice. Producer, director and actors — they all got it right.
Musical highlights of the show are “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Johnny Be Good,” “It’s So Easy” and the simple “Everyday” sung by Buddy Holly (John Dewey). Standouts also included “La Bamba” by Ritchie Valens (Gilbert D Sanchez), “Chantilly Lace” by the Big Bopper (Karack Osborn), and “Shout” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love?” by the deliciously sassy diva from the Harlem Apollo played by Brandi Chavonee (who previously appeared at Bucks County Playhouse under Hunter Foster’s direction in “Ain’t Misbehavin’“).
I would be remiss if I did not say that I admired the sets by Adam Koch, as well as the lighting design by Gina Scherr, and sound design by Matthew Given. The turntable gave smooth transitions from scene to scene.
In the end, regardless of our knowing that our protagonist dies in a fatal crash, Buddy Holly lives on. Ironically, his group’s name was the Crickets. But is far from the sound of crickets that one hears at the end of the evening at Bucks County Playhouse. One hears the hooting, hollering, applauding and stomping of feet that only true rock ‘n’ roll can produce.
The show continues at the Bucks County Playhouse through July 16; (215) 862-2121.