Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story Rocks at History Theatre in St. Paul

Nicholas Freeman as Buddy Holly Photo by Rick Spaulding

Does everyone know how great Buddy Holly was? I’m serious. This is a conversation I had with my brother after seeing Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story at History Theatre. We grew up knowing Holly’s music, our Dad exposed us to it from a very early age. He had a tangential connection. He grew up in Fargo ND and his neighborhood friend Robert Velline, better known as Bobby Vee, got his big break filling in for Holly at the concert in Moorhead Minnesota on February 3rd 1957, the day the music died. One of the first 10 CD’s I ever owned, I think I was in the 7th grade, was Buddy Holly From the Original Master Tapes. It contained 20 songs, all of them great, and I would discover throughout my lifetime that there were more great songs that weren’t even on that CD. As Minnesotans, we also collectively have a connection since he was flying from our neighbor state Iowa to perform in Moorhead MN. So for me personally, and I suspect for many of us regionally, we are aware of what was lost when the plane carrying Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Ritchie Valens Crashed, killing them as well as their pilot. History theatre’s production resurrects the music, if only for a couple of hours. But in those hours we together as an audience experience the genius of Buddy Holly, and I as an individual, felt like I had my Dad there with me again.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is a jukebox musical written by Alan Janes which basically tells the brief biographical rise to fame of Buddy Holly. Holly having Died at the age of 22, there isn’t a lot of story to tell, but that’s OK because the real story is simply the music. It opens with local legend T. Mychael Rambo doing an acapella version of Don McLean’s “American Pie“. It’s a somber note which plants a seed that blossoms into the realization as we watch and listen of what exactly the world lost on that bitter February morning. Because what follows on from that moment is pure joy. We follow Buddy from January 1956 when he gets his first chance at a recording contract through February 1959 when he died at age 22. In three short years, we witness possibly one of the greatest musical outputs of all time. We are left at the end with the unanswerable question, what would have been? The show finds the best possible way to mark the death of Holly and then wisely gives us a flashback to hours before, an encore if you will, so that we can end on a high note with a couple more performances of Holly’s classic songs.

Buddy is played by Nicholas Freeman, this is the fifth time History Theatre has produced the show starting back in 2009 and Freeman has played Buddy each time. There is a reason you cast a man who has to be pushing 50 as a 22 year old, because he looks enough like, and sounds almost exactly like the real Holly. Buddy Holly had a distinctive vocal style which Freeman nails and since the story elements are short and really just a way to get us to the next musical performance, Freeman’s age wasn’t an issue. The show lives and breathes in the performances of the songs which are so good, the entire audience gets clapping along multiple times. Freeman, along with Adam Gauger and Matt Mcinytre who play the founding members of the crickets, actually play their instruments and they sound tight. They are assisted by Brandon Petron as the 4th Cricket on guitar and Jake Endres on keyboards. Their musical talents help to infuse the production with a vintage rock n roll concert feel that leaves you wanting more. Brendan Nelson Finn as The Big Bopper and Fernando Collado as Ritchie Valens are also wonderful at channeling the performances of their real life counterparts.

This was my first time seeing Buddy …, which given my affinity for the music might surprise you. The reality is that before I began reviewing shows, History Theatre was barely on my radar. Once I started and saw that I’d just missed Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story I kicked myself, then hoped they would produce it again in the not too distant future. Director Ron Peluso, who has been the Artistic Director of History Theatre for the past 27 years, likely as been fine tuning this show with each subsequent mounting. He’s done a remarkable job, it flows effortlessly and the moment of Holly’s death which I mentioned earlier could not be staged any more poignantly. If there is a stand out creative choice in the show that’s it. As I said the music is tight and that is due in no small part to the Musical Director Gary Rue. The set design by Justin Hooper is somehow perfect to stand in for a TV studio, recording studio, Concert venue and in a cute little moment a office building, with elevator.

For fans of classic rock-n-roll music and in particular Buddy Holly, you will not want to miss this spectacular production. The show runs through October 30th for more information and to purchase tickets go to https://www.historytheatre.com/2022-2023/buddy-buddy-holly-story

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