An onstage retelling of the Buddy Holly story
Esther Covington has lived and breathed rock ’n’ roll icon Buddy Holly for the past six years, playing the role of ivory-tickling Vi Petty in “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” in theaters across the country.
She knows the show so well that when Dennis Assaf, director of the Jefferson Performing Arts Society, traveled to see her in a Florida production, he knew she was the one he wanted to direct the show for JPAS.
“It’s the story of an underdog,” said Covington, who also directed JPAS’s recent “The Full Monty.” “He was this kid from Texas with tons and tons of talent who kept being told he couldn’t make it. It’s an underdog story about a kid who wouldn’t quit. It’s a story that inspires you to keep going.”
The amazing music aside, the show’s message of determination and will is at the heart of the Buddy Holly story, and Covington said she is thrilled to be on the Buddy Holly team in Metairie — not just as director but choreographer, musical director and for the fifth time, Vi Petty, the musician wife of Holly’s recording engineer and manager, Norman.
“Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” will be performed Thursday at the Columbia Theater, 220 E. Thomas St., Hammond. It opens at the Jefferson Performing Arts Theater, 400 Phlox St., Metairie, on Saturday for a two-weekend run.
Written by Alan James, with music and lyrics by Holly and other songwriters, “Buddy” tells the story of Holly’s stunning rise to fame, from his humble country music roots to his years as the world’s top recording artist to his untimely death in a 1959 plane crash.
The show features more than 20 of Holly’s greatest hits including “Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be The Day,” “Maybe Baby,” “Oh Boy,” “Rave On,” Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba,” and the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace.”
Like Covington, much of the cast has previous Buddy Holly experience, including the show’s star, Travis Poelle, who will be playing Buddy for the fifth time.
“He is so good — so spot on,” Covington said. “He came to the first rehearsal knowing exactly what to do.”
Poelle has won rave reviews wherever he has played Buddy. “More than anyone else, Poelle carries the show … performing with a verve that delivers Holly’s passionate musicianship,” the San Francisco Chronicle wrote. “He looks like Holly, and he rocks out irresistibly.”
Also doing the show again are Scott Moss and Evan Shyer, who play Joe B. Mauldin and Jerry Allison, members of the Crickets, Holly’s back-up band. Local actor and radio talk show host John “Spud” McConnell returns as The Big Bopper.
“He is a character, and I mean that as the biggest compliment,” Covington said when describing McConnell. “He knows when to be serious and when not to be, plus he brings candy to rehearsals.”
Covington described the show as a “play with music” rather than a musical, with Holly’s songs interwoven in the story.
“It starts out in the small town of Lubbock, Texas and shows his journey to international fame before his tragic death.
“There’s a scene with Buddy recording in the studio, another where he’s on stage at the Apollo Theater. You’ll hear a large sampling of Buddy Holly songs and snippets of others.”
The cast also includes John Fritz as The 4th Cricket, Peter Elliot as Ritchie Valens, John North as Hipockets Duncan, Micah Desonier as Maria Elena, Chris Wecklien as Norman Petty, Hillary Klein as Shirley and Jessica Mixon and Nethaneel Williams as Apollo soloists.
“Ninety percent of having a good show is casting, and I couldn’t have asked for a better cast,” Covington said. “They know the music and the scripts and the way the show is laid out, and they have certainly made my job much easier.”
In addition to Covington, the artistic staff includes James Anthony, production stage manager and assistant choreographer; Micah Desonia, dance captain; Tony Ducote, costume designer; and Richard Croy, set designer.