Out & About: Docu-musicals begin, end seasons
"Docu-musical” might not be a real word, but it ought to be. It’s a simple, accurate description of a stage musical that tells a real-life story.
That’s what’s happening this June, as Maine State Music Theatre and Mad Horse Theatre Company present docu-musicals with diametrically opposed aesthetic viewpoints.
In Brunswick, Maine State Music Theatre is starting its season with “Buddy,” the true story of the rock-and-roll pioneer whose all-too-brief heyday was 1957-1959. This show is a large, joyous romp through the catalogue of hits written and performed by Buddy Holly.
In South Portland, Mad Horse Theatre Company is wrapping up its 2013-2014 season with its first musical in 17 years: “Grey Gardens,” based on the true tale of two prominent New York socialites who spent their later years in self-imposed exile at a decrepit seaside mansion.
Maine State Music Theatre opened its 2014 season last Thursday with an exuberant stage tribute to rock-and-roll pioneer Buddy Holly.
In the show’s final moments, as the audience stood and fervently applauded the cast of 16 singers and instrumentalists, my thought was this: These 16 are the luckiest, happiest people in the world right now.
Not only are they performing some of the most brilliant, buoyant pop music ever written, they’re pleasing an audience of hundreds and bringing them along on a joyous ride. And that’s one of the ultimate aims of theatre.
The show was “Buddy,” which is one of the first and most successful of the now-familiar genre of jukebox musical. Subtitled “The Buddy Holly Story,” the show premiered in London in 1989, and has been in more or less continual production on both sides of the Atlantic ever since.
The script, by Alan Janes, hews closely to the facts, beginning with Buddy Holly’s teenage years in Lubbock, Texas. Janes’ script follows Holly’s 1 1/2 years of Top 40 fame, beginning with his first hit in 1957 and ending with his death in a 1959 plane crash.
At age 17, Holly formed The Crickets, a band with two high-school friends. At first The Crickets stuck to country-and-western music, but soon ventured into rock-and-roll.
In the 1950s, rock was full of racial overtones that created cultural conflict and backlash. This tension in turn created opportunities for daring musicians who were willing to venture outside the proverbial box.
Holly’s best-remembered songs are all in the show. These include classics such as “Oh Boy,” “Rave On,” “Ollie Vee,” “Everyday,” “Not Fade Away,” “Peggy Sue” and “Maybe Baby.” Most were written or co-written by Holly. Several others were written or co-written by Norman Petty, the producer who recorded many Holly hits.
For the title character of MSMT's season-opening show, artistic director Curt Dale Clark and stage director Donna Drake picked Andy Christopher, a young musician whose credentials hardly need burnishing – he's already played Buddy in a major national tour. Christopher exudes the looks, sounds and aura of the historical figure. Plus, he’s an accomplished guitarist and singer who radiates excitement and charisma in the big numbers. And he more than holds his own as an actor.
Two young stars who died with Holly in the plane crash are also featured in the story. Jayson Elliot is convincing as The Big Bopper, whose top hit, “Chantilly Lace,” is wonderfully recalled in the show. Ditto Ritchie Valens, famous for “La Bamba,” played by Xander Chauncey.
Christopher, Elliot and Chauncey enjoy great support from the ensemble of 13, all of whom play multiple characters and sing and/or play musical instruments at some point. In the unforgettable final scene, the entire cast appears together for eight songs.
Maine State Music Theatre presents “Buddy” through June 21 at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Call 725-8769 or visit www.msmt.org.
If Maine State Music Theatre represent big, brash Broadway aesthetic values, Mad Horse Theatre Company epitomizes the opposite. Since 1986, the company’s self-proclaimed mission is to produce small-scale, intimate dramas that frequently explore obscure corners of human experience. And during the company’s 27 years in greater Portland, it has presented only a handful of musicals.
Mad Horse’s current offering represents a continuation of its longstanding commitment to throw light into the darkest shadows of life, as well as a breaking with its non-musical practices. “Grey Gardens” is a chamber musical that perfectly fulfills the company’s mission of taking audiences on an emotional roller-coaster ride.
The plot comes straight from Greek and Shakespearean drama: the fall of the high and mighty. For “Grey Gardens,” the high and mighty characters are drawn from unofficial American aristocracy, specifically the Bouviers, a wealthy family of French descent that had been prominent in Pennsylvania and New York since the early 1800s. The two central characters are Edith Ewing Bouvier Beale and her 24-year-old daughter, Edith Bouvier Beale.
They are, respectively, aunt and cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier, who later married John F. Kennedy. Twelve-year-old Jacqueline and her younger sister, Lee Bouvier, are also characters.
In the first act we meet the two women – “Big Edie” and “Little Edie” – in 1941 at Grey Gardens, the Bouvier seaside estate in ultra-exclusive East Hampton, surrounded by their wealthy family, friends and servants. In the second act, the two Edies are living in filth and poverty with their 50-plus cats in Grey Gardens, which is now described as a “28-room litter box.” The local health department has determined that Grey Gardens is “not fit for human habitation” and is threatening to evict the two women.
Their fall from grace makes for a compelling musical drama, with book by Doug Wright, music by Scott Frankel and lyrics by Michael Korie. The performance weaves a spellbinding story of the pathologically dysfunctional relationship between the mother and daughter, in two vignettes. The first is in 1941, when the two Edies were at the apex of their gilded lives, and then 32 years later, when their relationship had devolved and their physical circumstances hit rock-bottom.
Mad Horse’s production, directed by Ray Dumont, is dominated by a dazzling performance by Christine Marshall, who plays Big Edie in 1941 and then Little Edie in 1973. Marshall is strongly supported by Anna Gravel as Little Edie in 1941, Susan Reilly as the elderly Big Edie in 1973, and an additional six actors in multiple roles.
Mad Horse Theatre Company, 24 Mosher St. in South Portland, presents “Grey Gardens” through June 22, with 7:30 p.m. performances Thursday through Saturday and at 2 p.m. Sunday. Call 747-4148.