Kurt Jenkins knows a lot about music. Back home in Birmingham, Ala., he fronts the alternative indie-pop band Skyway Spirits.
But until he signed on to play Buddy Holly at Ogunquit Playhouse, he didn’t know much about Holly, the Texas-born rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who died at age 22 in a 1959 plane crash.
“I knew about as much as the average person did,” said Jenkins. “But I was not exposed to the details of his music or his life before this show.”
“I guess it is his songwriting. That’s what struck me, how both timeless and contemporary it is,” he said. “A lot of the songs could be considered hits of today if they were given the chance. He was so ahead of the curve. A lot of people were writing music that sounded like that, but it did not have the aesthetic weight that his music did.”
“Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” opens Thursday evening and runs through Oct. 21 at Ogunquit Playhouse in southern Maine. It’s the final show of the season at the playhouse, which celebrated its 80th season this year.
“Buddy” is a tribute musical packed with the songs that made Holly among the most influential rock stars of all time and one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: “Peggy Sue,” “Oh, Boy!” “Maybe Baby” and “That’ll Be the Day,” among others.
The show is almost a concert experience, although there is quite a bit of dialogue and acting as well.
“The latter half of both acts are basically concerts,” said Jenkins, who plays guitar on stage. “In those performances, I am basically being a musician. There are moments on stage when I smile at the other guys in the band and let out a hoot and a holler. That is not me pretending to be Buddy Holly. That is just me.”
One of the challenges of this show was putting a band together. The actors on stage perform the songs themselves; there are no pit musicians.
In this production, Holly’s band, The Crickets, is completed by Sam Weber, who plays bass player Joe B. Mauldin, and Joe “Cosmo” Cogen, who plays drummer Jerry Allison.
In addition to learning their roles for the stage, the trio also had to learn about each other as musicians. “Buddy” requires them to put a band together and develop a strong musical chemistry in just three weeks of rehearsals and a month-long run.
So far, so good, Jenkins said.
“It really does feel like a band,” he said. “Both guys are extremely talented. Sam and Joe, they are great guys. We get along really well, and it’s been quick fun.”
Other members of the cast include Jayson Eliot as The Big Bopper, Ryan Jagru as Ritchie Valens and Luke Darnell as Holly’s manager, Norm Petty. The Big Bopper and Valens died with Holly in a plane crash in an Iowa corn field on Feb. 3, 1959, following a concert in nearby Clear Lake. The Maine-based songwriter Don McLean memorialized their deaths in the iconic pop song “American Pie” in 1972.
The responsibility of getting the band in shape falls to John Bannister, who holds the title of music supervisor. He works for Buddy Worldwide LTD, the creators of the musical, and travels from site to site helping the actor-musicians with the music. He first joined the show in 1993 as a drummer.
A classically trained Brit, Bannister auditioned for the London run of the show knowing nothing about Holly. He showed up for work after accepting the job, but couldn’t find the orchestra pit. “Where am I supposed to play?” he asked. “They said, ‘On stage,’ and from that moment on, I got the bug.”
He performed in various productions for several years, and in 2004 began his duties as musical director.
Every cast is different, he said.
“It’s all written down, but there’s a lot you can’t write down,” Bannister said. “With actor-musicians, you never know what standard they are at. They could be all right with the guitar, or they could be absolutely amazing.
“What I have to do is find out what their strengths and weaknesses are and put it all together. I am basically the conductor, but I am not there for the actual show.”
The band for the Ogunqit show, he said, “is quite incredible. These are great actors and great musicians. I am over the moon to be a part of this production.”
ALSO SHOWING …
AS THE OGUNQUIT PLAYHOUSE winds up its season with a fall production of “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” other theaters in Portland and around the region are preparing for the season ahead. Here are some highlights:
• PORTLAND STAGE COMPANY, 25A Forest Ave. (774-0465; portlandstage.org) opens its season with Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig.” The family drama reunites three Jewish-American sisters in London to celebrate the birthday of eldest. It previews on Tuesday, opens on Sept. 30, and runs through Oct. 21.
• THE PUBLIC THEATRE, 31 Maple St., Lewiston (782-3200; thepublictheatre.org) opens with a new play, Karen Zacarias’ witty comedy “The Book Club.” Opening night is Oct. 19, and the show runs through Oct. 28.
The Public Theatre is working with the playwright on the continuing development of this new script following its previous production at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C. Zacarias will participate in a post-show discussion following the Oct. 21 matinee.
• GOOD THEATER (885-5883; goodtheater.com) kicks off its 11th season with a two-performance event, “An Evening with Broadway Star Florence Lacey,” at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6 and 2 p.m. Oct. 7. Lacey holds the record for the most performances of Eva Peron in “Evita” – more than 3,000. The company begins its regular season with the Tony Award-nominated play “Good People” Oct. 10 to Nov. 4. Good Theater presents its shows at the St. Lawrence Arts Center, 76 Congress St., Portland.
• MAD HORSE THEATER COMPANY (730-2389; madhorse.com) opens its 27th season on Oct. 11 with David Mamet’s political comedy “November.” It runs through Oct. 28. Mad Horse moves its shows to a newly created black-box space at the former Hutchins School, 24 Mosher St., South Portland. It has presented its shows most recently at Lucid Stage in Portland, but Lucid is closing this fall.
• AIRE, the American Irish Repertory Ensemble (799-5327; airetheater.com/home.htm) opens with Brian Friel’s play “Faith Healer” on Oct. 4. It runs through Oct. 21 with performances at the Studio Theater at Portland Stage Company, 25A Forest Ave., Portland.
The play focuses on itinerant faith healer Frank Hardy, his wife, and his manager as they travel to remote towns throughout the British Isles, where Frank attempts to cure the sick and suffering. It stars Broadway veteran and Maine resident Will Rhys.
• THE UNIVERSITY OF SOUTHERN MAINE School of Music (780-5555) presents the one-act musical revue “Assassins” with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. It runs Nov. 2-4 at Corthell Concert Hall on the Gorham campus, and offers up nine sketches of people who killed presidents of the United States – or gave it their best shot.
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or: