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Oh boy! Michael Perrie Jr. has the spirit of Buddy Holly

Michael Perrie Jr. plays the title role in

Michael Perrie Jr. plays the title role in "The Buddy Holly Story" at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport. Credit: Michael DeCristofaro

WHAT "Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story"

WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, through March 3, John W. Engeman Theater, 250 Main St., Northport

INFO $73 ($78 Saturday evenings); 631-261-2900, engemantheater.com

Michael Perrie Jr. has a special place in his heart for “Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story.”

The actor, who stars as the legendary singer at the John W. Engeman Theater in Northport through March 3, proposed during a curtain call when the show played LIU Post’s Tilles Center in 2016. The cast was in on it, providing appropriate background music — Holly’s sweet “Words of Love.” (Spoiler alert: She said yes.)
The show was also the first musical Perrie attended. He was 8 and saw it with his uncle and cousin in the cast. “It’s what made me want to do theater,” he says, noting how “cool it was to see the actors actually playing their own instruments.”

That’s just one reason why Engeman decided to stage this early jukebox musical, which coincides with the 60th anniversary of Holly's death in a plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959. After last year’s production of “Once,” in which many of the actors were also musicians who did their own playing, Richard T. Dolce, the theater’s producing artistic director, says they started looking for a musical with a similar feel. “It was such an exciting part of the show,” he says, basically “a live concert onstage within the context of a show.”

More important is the music Holly, who hailed from Lubbock, Texas, created in a short time from his first hit, “That’ll Be the Day,” in 1957 to his death at age 22. (Famed rockers Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper were also killed in the crash.) Dolce calls himself a fan, saying he was drawn to a show “about an artist who is so iconic with music, so recognizable.” It’s a big attraction for Perrie, as well — and a challenge. Performing 22 songs and being in every scene, he says, “is tiring, no matter who you are — physically and vocally.”

Then there was a matter of finding Holly’s voice. “He has a very particular voice,” Perrie say. “People come and they want to hear Buddy, not just an interpretation.” Thankfully, he says, “we have a similar tone,” and after performing the show off and on since 2016 he easily slips into that Lubbock drawl, what he calls “a liquid sound.” On top of that, he layers the mannerisms everyone knows, “the hiccup, the slight vibrato.” By the time he puts on those thick black glasses, he’s nailed it.   

For Perrie, 28, the biggest challenge is “bringing a Buddy that is very truthful, not a caricature . . . also someone that the audience will not hate because he’s so stubborn, so opinionated.” The Baltimore native is also an accomplished playwright — his works include a musical about Shakespeare’s life and a drama about people in a nuclear bunker during World War III. He says he does a little more research on Holly every time he revisits the show and has come to recognize the major influence Holly had on the world of music. “His legacy is phenomenal,” Perrie says. “There’d be no Rolling Stones, no Beatles without Buddy Holly . . . some of the greatest artists of all time owe him so much.“

Dolce, too, is fascinated by the Holly legacy, especially his commitment to the direction he wanted to take his music. “Producers and studios wanted to pigeonhole him into being a country-western artist . . . and he kept fighting against it,” he says. “There was a sound he heard in his head . . . in the years he was able to record he pushed the boundaries of rock and roll.”

Holly’s death brought an end to the promise. To commemorate the 60th anniversary of the crash, on Feb. 3 Dolce plans to have Perrie perform the Don McLean classic “American Pie,” that refers to the tragedy as “the day the music died” 

But really the music lives. Perrie says he’s always taken with how many people waiting at stage doors are “kids who love Buddy Holly.” There’s a fascination with him still, Perrie says, “the fable of the snuffed-out candle who burned too bright.”

GETTING HIP TO HOLLY 

Though Buddy Holly may not have had Elvis Presley’s sneer or swiveling hips, he contributed to rock and roll’s rebellion with his pioneering use of electric guitar, production techniques and his distinctive vocals with his band The Crickets. Create your own Buddy Holly playlist with these tunes:

THAT’LL BE THE DAY (1957) Though it sounds upbeat, Holly’s mix of darkness and light makes it an enduring classic, covered by countless artists, including The Beatles’ forerunners The Quarrymen and Linda Ronstadt. And the line, “You give me all your loving and your turtle-doving” showed how well he could capture the language of youth.  

EVERYDAY (1957) The hopeful love song is timeless, seen in how easily it can fit the styles of James Taylor and Erasure. But maybe the most impressive part of the original is that the only percussion is The Crickets’ drummer Jerry Allison slapping his knees.

NOT FADE AWAY (1957) Between Holly’s distinctive hiccupping delivery and the Bo Diddley guitar groove, “Not Fade Away” shows how Holly was using influences and making them his own — including having Allison play the song using cardboard boxes.

PEGGY SUE (1957) A simple tale about pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty Peggy Sue that Holly turns into a masterpiece with his manic delivery. Then, cue the galloping drums and the grand guitar solo.

IT’S SO EASY (1958) Yeah, it’s a doggone easy song to learn, but Holly’s cool delivery and the swirl of cool guitar solos make it unforgettable.

TRUE LOVE WAYS (1958) Holly didn’t always have to push the envelope. This gorgeous ballad, written for his wife, Maria Elena, is a lovely give and take between his tender vocals and a majestic orchestra.

OH BOY! (1957) An ecstatic two minutes built to approximate that initial feeling of young love, with Holly bouncing between sweetness and growls.

RAVE ON (1958) It’s a cuh-razy feeling that Holly built and that everyone from John Mellencamp to Julian Casablancas has tapped into over the years.

HEARTBEAT (1958) The ornate guitar work gives the song a Tex-Mex flavor, reflecting the influence that music from both sides of the border had on the Lubbock, Texas, native.

WORDS OF LOVE (1957) Holly crystallizes his sound in a jangly ballad that seemingly influenced everyone from The Beatles, who covered the song in 1964, to the college rock bands of the ‘80s like R.E.M.

— GLENN GAMBOA

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