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It takes two to rock 'n' roll the way Buddy Holly did

| Wednesday, July 24, 2013, 8:20 p.m.
Hilary Camilleri
Kurt Jenkins as Buddy Holly, Joe Cosmo Cogen as Jerry Allison and Sam Weber as Joe B. Mauldin in Pittsburgh CLO's 'Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story.'
Hilary Camilleri
Sam Weber as Joe B. Mauldin and Andy Christopher as Buddy Holly in Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story' at Pittsburgh CLO.
Hilary Camilleri
Kurt Jenkins as Buddy Holly and Noellia Hernandez as Maria Elena in Pittsburgh CLO's 'Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story.'

Buddy Holly's rise to fame was fast and furious.

In just three years, he set the music world on fire, rocketing up the charts, armed with a Fender Stratocaster guitar, a rockabilly swagger and a portfolio of winning tunes that are now classics — “Peggy Sue,” “That'll Be the Day” and “Well All Right” among them.

The end came just as swiftly.

In 1959, he died at age 22 in a plane crash that also took the lives of tour mates Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson.

“Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story,” the jukebox musical that celebrates his life and music, is no less swift and intense.

That's why two actors play the role in alternating performances.

“One is not enough,” says Andy Christopher, 24, who shares the role with Kurt Jenkins, 29. “It's not that I can't do it eight times a week. But it would be difficult. With two, you can put more energy into the show.”

The musical will play the Benedum Center from July 30 through Aug. 4 as a presentation of Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. It runs two hours and 30 minutes. The actor playing Buddy Holly is on stage for all but 11 minutes.

“The way the show is formatted, I would get completely burned out doing it eight days a week,” Jenkins says. “This allows us to give it our all. It allows us to do a better show.”

Dance and movement also puts demands on the two performers.

“When you play a character who works with a guitar you have got to move. It's physically exhausting,” Christopher says. “It's just a marathon. ... Doing it eight times a week and moving (from city to city), you would have to police your energy and hold back, and we are doing rock 'n' roll, so it's impossible to hold back.”

On nights that they don't play the lead, they still can be seen on stage in smaller, supporting roles.

“It keeps us very fresh,” Christopher says.

As Buddy, each actor says the same lines, wears identical costumes, sings the same songs and takes similar paths across the stage.

But they say there are subtle differences in their performances and their individual approach to the character.

“Kurt is much more easily rock-star insane and a guitar artist,” Christopher says. “His rock-star persona is more informed than mine.”

Music had long been a hobby with Christopher, and he performed in his high school's musicals. But he didn't learn to play guitar until after being cast in the part of Buddy.

It took him three and a half months, but he can now carry off Holly's signature move of playing “Johnny Be Good” while holding the guitar behind his back.

It was hard work, he says. “But I could not refuse the opportunity to live one of my wildest dreams.”

Jenkins, on the other hand, had 14 years of guitar experience behind him when he auditioned for the role.

“I definitely relate to (Holly's) ear for music. I have a good ear for music,” Jenkins says. “Anybody passionate about what they do can relate to Buddy Holly.”

Jenkins says his biggest goal is: “To show he was this naive kid and, by the end of the show, he was a fully developed star. He had to learn quick. … (The show) only covers 18 months of his life, so I really try to emphasize that arc.”

In addition to experiencing moments from Buddy Holly's life, Christopher advises audiences to come prepared for a pair of rock concerts.

“The first and second acts end with a rock concert, and that's what makes the show,” Christopher says. “Especially at the end, those girls and guys in the ensemble and the principals, they are really amazing.”

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or acarter@tribweb.com.

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