Chistopher Sutton shines as the man whose life and career were cut way too short.
After rock ’n’ roll legend Buddy Holly died in a plane crash in 1959, Don McLean commemorated the tragedy as “the day the music died” in his song “American Pie.” Luckily for us, the man and the music live again in the Walnut Street Theatre’s extravagant jukebox musical, Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story.
A guitar-slinging Texan who is both polite and proud, playwright Alan Janes’ biography of Holly (Christopher Sutton) covers a three-year period between 1956 and 1959. It begins with Holly’s early days in his hometown of Lubbock, Texas, where the local radio DJ (the reliable Anthony Lawton) initially rejects Holly’s songs as sounding too much like “colored music” for the “God-fearing” listeners on the country music station. Holly gets a warmer reception in Clovis, N.M., where he records his early hits with producer Norman Petty (Ned Massey). Among the records Holly makes in Clovis is the classic “Peggy Sue,” which is recorded with the help of Petty’s wife Vi (Angela C. Howell) and the spectacular “Everyday,” which Sutton delivers in a sparkling rendition. The show’s second act focuses primarily on Holly’s final concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, where he performs with the Big Bopper (a fabulously larger-than-life Scott Greer) and the one-hit wonder Ritchie Valens (Miguel Jarquin-Moreland, whose hip-twisting performance of “La Bamba” would make a Chippendale dancer proud).
What makes Buddy such fine escapist entertainment is that like most jukebox musicals, the show is almost entirely devoid of conflict. In Janes’ retelling, any problem or challenge Holly encounters is treated as little more than a triviality that is quickly brushed aside. With remarkable ease, Holly converts Texas’ country music lovers to his brand of rock ’n’ roll, meets and marries his wife (a courtship that lasts a mere five hours), and rids himself of his band, the Crickets, when his longtime friends start drinking. The speed with which challenges are dispatched is so lighting fast it could seem silly and cartoonish, but Sutton portrays Holly with such sincerity and conviction that we happily go along for the ride.
This isn’t the first time Sutton has played the titular role in The Buddy Holly Story at the Walnut; in 1999, he won a Barrymore Award for his performance as the spectacle- wearing musician. Thirteen years later, he doesn’t reprise his performance as much as reinvent it. Sutton (who is blessed with an eternally boyish appearance) is as energetic as ever, but under John Daniels’ exacting music and voice direction, he has become a more mature and thoughtful vocalist—two traits that are put to good use on the production’s most intimate arrangement, “True Love Ways.” Sutton’s sweet voice compliments the song’s sole acoustic guitar beautifully (he is an accomplished guitarist as well) and the tune’s emotional impact is surprisingly forceful. It doesn’t hurt that Sutton is married in real life to Lyn Philistine, who plays Holly’s wife in the production.
The production receives a big boost from the talented Matt Kraus, whose sound design is as sharp as it is powerful, especially on the rousing cover of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” which inspires the audience to literally dance in the aisles. Overall, director Casey Hushion’s production succeeds on every level.
Through July 22. $10-$75. Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut St. 215.574.3550. walnutstreettheatre.org
Calendar: Aug. 26-Sept. 2