By Leilani Roberts Ott
Sit back in your seat, listen to the crackling sounds of static as Hipockets Duncan, played by Steve Thomson, spins the tunes of Buddy Holly singing “That’ll Be the Day” on the Muskogee Little Theatre stage.
The rock ‘n’ roll legend, Holly, and entertainers Ritchie Valenz and the Big Bopper died in a plane crash after a show in Clear Lake, Iowa, in February 1959. For the next two weekends, local musicians and vocalists are bringing to life “Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story.”
Jim Paul Blair is Holly. He grew up around music with his mother, Ramona Reed as a member of the Texas Playboys. He has re-created himself and his music to sound like Hank Williams, Elvis Presley, Marty Robbins and Johnny Cash.
“I keep getting younger,” he said during a break from dress rehearsal.
He’s let his hair grow and died it black. He’s added black glasses and black penny loafers. He also grew up with Tommy Allsup, who played as the fourth Cricket in Holly’s band, The Crickets. It was a flip of a coin between Allsup and Valenz that saved Alsup’s life. Blair’s first memory of Buddy Holly was in the movie “American Graffiti.”
“That’s when I fell in love with and was exposed to his music,” Blair said.
“Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story” is considered a jukebox musical. Penny McGill, set designer, framed the MLT stage in what looks like a giant jukebox with flashing lights.
“The set is brilliant — so creative, so cool,” said Coni Wetz, MLT executive director.
McGill, who also sings as a performer at The Apollo Theatre, said the audience is going to have a good time listening to songs like “Peggy Sue” and “Maybe Baby.”
“It’s my first time to perform with Jim,” she said. “Everyone is so talented.”
The play has two acts based on a book written by Alan Janes with music and lyrics written by a variety of songwriters. Blair said the musical is closer to Holly’s life story than the 1978 film about his life. The musical opened in 1989.
“It is rocking,” Wetz said. “The finale is great. It is phenomenal.”
Blair, also music director for the show, tried to make each musical act seem just like it was in the 1950s right down to the vintage microphones.
Guest director Nick Sweet of Shepherd, Texas, said Blair has assembled talented musicians for the show.
“The music is about falling in love and heartbreak,” Sweet said. “It was revolutionary in the ’50s. New music was being created, and Buddy Holly was one of the originators or founding fathers of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Sweet, who has directed a few shows for MLT like “Annie,” “The Miracle Worker” and “Lost Highway” about the life of Hank Williams, was “thrilled” to be called to direct the Buddy Holly story.
“I think Jim Blair is enamored by Buddy Holly,” Sweet said. “Buddy Holly is up there with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry . . . tragedy just losing him so early.”
The show has new actors to the MLT stage like Kenny Greer who plays a Decca producer who is having a little difficulty with Holly.
“I want Western, and he wants rock ‘n’ roll,” Greer said.
He said he has supported MLT by providing food from his restaurant, Mahylon’s. He claims he was coerced by Micheal Rappe and Blair to do the show.
Rappe is a veteran actor with MLT. Besides his acting talents, he plays the guitar and sings in the show. He’s on stage performing in the finale that will rock the windows. The singing of “La Bamba” by Valenz, played by Andy Sanchez, and the Big Bopper, played by Tommy Cummings, will take you back in time to that day.
For Sanchez, he is living his dream. He was 13 when the movie came out about the life of Ritchie Valenz. Sanchez, who comes from a long line of family entertainers, started singing and playing Tejano or Tex-Mex music when he was 4 to 5.
“I’m the youngest of nine,” he said. “We were the Hispanic Jackson Eight.”
An employee of Love Bottling, he came to try out for a MLT play after a co-worker, Cindy Smith, heard him singing in the hall. Smith is president of MLT. He performed in “Chicago!” and got the theater bug.
“I love it so much,” he said.
Veteran MLT actor Tommy Cummings is having the time of his life portraying the Big Bopper.
“I’m not the bad guy this time,” Cummings said. “I’m having a blast. This is a close as I’ll ever come to being in a band. It’s once in a lifetime.”
Jermaine Mondaine, who plays the saxophone as the character King Curtis, said he’s got some pretty big shoes to fill in his role.
“He was an old school sax player,” Mondaine said.
Travis Dix, who plays the drums for the Crickets, learned to play the drums watching his father. He’s been in a couple of MLT plays, but this will be his last for awhile because he’s joined the U.S. Navy and leaves for basic training in June.
“I didn’t really know Buddy Holly when I started this,” Dix said. “It’s pretty disappointing that he had to die so young.”
McGill said people will have a new appreciation of Holly who made his impact in only a couple of years.
It’s like Blair said: “Tell your friends. Come on down, ‘cause Buddy Holly’s back in town.”