A star is reborn in a jumpin’ jukebox musical, “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” now shaking the treetops in Forest Park.
Andy Christopher is sensational as the early rock ’n’ roll pioneer, who gets his due in a joyful tribute that highlights Holly’s brief but brilliant career. Fifty-six years have passed since his death at age 22 on Feb. 3, 1959, in the plane crash that also killed Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper.
This work shows why his impact has lasted. His influence is everywhere — and two of his biggest fans, Paul McCartney and John Lennon, were mere lads in Liverpool when they formed The Beatles, a name nod to The Crickets.
As bandmates Jerry Allison (drums) and Joe B. Mauldin (upright bass), Joe Cosmo Cogen and Sam Weber elevate the music and the moves, with fireball Weber dazzling the crowd with his acrobatics on the big bass.
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The trio is a tight bright unit, and they have extensive experience in these roles, which is evident. The crowd-pleasing musical wowed audiences for 12 years in London’s West End, played Broadway and a national tour, then was revived in England. It ignited St. Louis in its premiere.
Whether you experienced the exhilarating beginning of rock ’n’ roll, only know Buddy through McCartney’s admiration (Sir Paul owns the music catalogue) or Weezer’s tribute song, or kinda sorta know about “Peggy Sue” and have heard covers of “That’ll Be the Day” and “Everyday,” you’ll learn new things about the icon.
The fascinating backstory depicts a mild-mannered polite Texas boy who looked like Clark Kent but turned into Superman in the music studio. Driven and talented, he wanted people to accept him, as is, for his music. Hence, the horn-rimmed glasses and style. He wrote his own songs, rather unheard of at the time, and stubbornly wouldn’t back down on his sound.
His whirlwind courtship of Maria Elena Santiago (sweet and lovely Sharone Sayegh) and his rocky break-up with manager Norman Petty and The Crickets provide the personal conflicts.
But “Buddy” is primarily all about the music, and wow, it is a rollicking good time. The showstopper is Buddy’s debut at The Apollo Theatre in Harlem, where the Crickets were mistakenly booked because everyone assumed they were black. Marlena, a roof-blowing Teressa Kindle, so memorable as the Teen Angel in last year’s “Grease,” shimmers on stage in “Shout,” with the electrifying Apollo Musicians.
Buddy, Jerry and Joe win them over, and soon, the Apollo musicians join the action. Buddy didn’t care about color lines, for the boy from Lubbock instinctively knew the power of music as a universal language.
Of course no Buddy bio is complete without mentioning that fateful winter night, the one Don McLean dubbed “The Day The Music Died,” but after the facts, they launch into a rollicking dance party that had the audience on its feet. In fact, a rousing standing ovation for Christopher began even before he finished and took his bow.
Christopher truly slips into the skin of Holly, as he is genuine and dynamic in such a demanding role. The band’s moves are invigorating, and fun. It takes courage to do Chuck Berry’s famous Duck Walk in his hometown, and they nailed it, to appreciative applause.
Some of my favorite actors who regularly appear around town smoothly slip into supporting roles. John Scherer (“Noises Off” and “The Foreigner” at The Rep, and Muny’s “The Addams Family”) is a chameleon, unrecognizable as down-home Hipockets Duncan, responsible for Buddy’s first break. Michael James Reed (“Tarzan”at the Muny and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at The Rep) is solid as Buddy’s first manager, and Ben Nordstrom (“Billy Elliot” at The Muny and “How to Succeed” at Stages) energetically fills several DJ, radio and emcee roles, firing up the audience at the Winter Dance Party scene.
Also memorable are Nicholas Rodriguez (last year’s “Tarzan”) as a buoyant Ritchie Valens leading “La Bamba” Christopher Ryan Grant as the bombastic The Big Bopper singing “Chantilly Lace,” and Jo Lynn Burks as Vi Petty wailing a mean piano.
Scenic designer Robert Mark Morgan created an intimate setting so the stage doesn’t seem to swallow up this smaller-than-usual story, and it works well. We’re drawn in through the musicality -- superb work by music director Michael Horsley — and fluid directing by Marcia Milgrom Dodge, with her keen eye and sharp focus.
The cast’s composure on a sweltering evening was remarkable. They didn’t miss a beat in the heat, radiating good cheer. The young dancers were particularly impressive with their snappy moves.
With those catchy tunes stimulating the crowd to clap its hands, you can see why rock ’n’ roll swept the country and how it became the soundtrack to our lives.
At a glance
What: “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story”
Where: The Muny, outdoor theater in Forest Park
When: 8:15 p.m. through Sunday