As many music buffs will already know, "The Day the Music Died" has been something of a moniker for the deaths of three up-and-coming young musicians during the infamous "Winter Dance Party" tour of 1959. On the night of Feb. 3 of that year, musicians Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and JP "The Big Bopper" Richardson were killed in a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa, along with their pilot. This event has long been a dark mark on the long history of American rock and roll.
Camelot Theatre has assembled another fun evening of music and history in their ever popular "Spotlight On ..." series commemorating that fateful night, and giving us tunes and background stories on all three of the artists who were involved. Ramping up the evening with such vaunted Holly classics as "That'll be the Day" and "Maybe Baby," and backed by a crew of talented musicians, a talented foursome (Robbie Dacosta as The Big Bopper, Bart Grady as Buddy Holly, Rigo Jimenez as Ritchie Valens and Sabrina Herbert on vocals and narration) blasts out tunes of the '50s with infectious zeal.
I thought it might be fun to take my cantankerous 76-year-old father along for the evening as a litmus test for the authenticity of the experience, since he was in his youth when most of these songs came out. Dad is rarely enthusiastic, and when he is, it's a very good sign. He declared the evening a success. Stories of starry California nights on the back seat of a 1957 Oldsmobile 88 inevitably followed.
Dacosta is a talented musician with some fun licks and an ability to get jiggy in a standard issue leopard print jacket. His renditions of "Chantilly Lace" and "White Lightning" were particularly good. As Buddy Holly, Bart Grady looked the part in perfect black-rimmed glasses and played a strong rhythm guitar. His "Peggy Sue" was a great highlight of the night.
With all due respect to these two fine gentlemen, the show was summarily stolen by Rigo Jimenez as Ritchie Valens. Where has Jimenez been hiding his singing voice and sex appeal? Under the floorboards at Camelot, apparently, and he pulled them out effortlessly for this show, gyrating and bopping in a plum-colored suit while sporting a perfect rock-a-billy hairstyle. Having only seen him in larger ensemble pieces, perhaps I missed the obvious musical talent that is on full display here. It's really lovely to see a performer come full circle into a role that was clearly made for him; Jimenez is a hurricane on stage throughout the night, bringing the whole group together with his infectious enthusiasm while playfully teasing the background musicians, cheering on his fellow lead artists, and never once breaking character. Patrons will be enamored of his renditions of "Come on Let's Go," as well as of Valens's signature tune, "La Bamba." It's an impressive performance that's worth the price of admission.
Sabrina Hebert, too, was working double time as both a supporting vocalist and a narrator. Although Herbert stumbled a little over her script, she made up for it with her singing and dancing skills. A sort of latter-day Keely Smith to Jimenez's Louis Prima-esque performance, Herbert blends beautifully into the show with a discreet professionalism that was not missed by the audience. An earnest performance on the glockenspiel was touching and well-executed.
A word must be said for the backup musicians. All three were excellent, with bass guitarist Dave Miller providing a consistent backbone to the body of music on display, and Gordon Greenley working his saxophone to the limit. Tom Stamper on drums fleshed out the trio.
"Spotlight On ..." is a light and joyous night of musical entertainment that will have you humming your way home. With direction by Roy Von Rains, Jr. and excellent lighting and sound design, you won't regret living it up at "The Day the Music Died."
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(April 6: The spelling of Sabrina Hebert's last name was corrected.)