"Buddy" will have you reeling if you see the show more than once. Two actors share the title role, allowing each man to go all out when he dons the iconic black horn-rimmed glasses as rock pioneer Buddy Holly.
Kurt Jenkins of Birmingham, Ala., had performed in regional theater and toured with his alt-pop band Skyward Spirit when he was asked to step into "Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story." His tag-team Buddy, Andy Christopher -- like Holly, a native of Lubbock, Texas -- had been working as an EMT when he took a chance on what would become a life-changing audition.
Both express a joy of discovery in learning and performing the songs that have resonated well beyond Holly's short life. The Rock Hall of Famer was killed at age 22 in a 1959 plane crash. Before "the day the music died," he had cut three albums, was one of the first artists to write, produce and perform his own music, and left a legacy of hits such as "Not Fade Away," "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue" and "Rave On," songs covered by artists from Linda Ronstadt to the Rolling Stones.
And he made horned-rimmed glasses forever cool in the eyes of rockers such as Weezer, who sing, "Woo-ee-oo, I look just like Buddy Holly."
The show presented by Pittsburgh CLO began on Broadway in 1990 as one of the earliest jukebox musicals. It contains elements of the 1978 biopic "The Buddy Holly Story" that starred Gary Busey and a concert-like atmosphere.
"You get your story, but it's really about the music," Mr. Christopher says.
The two Buddys share a favorite moment in the show when Buddy Holly sings "Not Fade Away" at the end of the first act.
"He isn't a rock star; he hasn't proven himself. He's in the Apollo Theater and he's one of the only white guys in an all-black theater. For me, it's him finally for the first time truly encapsulating that rock-star mentality," Mr. Jenkins says. "It's, 'While I'm here, I'm going to show what I can do.' You can see him turn from the shy guy to, 'Screw it; let's do it. Let's rock.' "
While the ballad "True Love Ways" is a mellower moment cherished by Mr. Christopher, "Definitely the most fun to perform is 'Not Fade Away.' In the show, that's when he began to be Buddy Holly, to be that rock star, getting comfortable with that's who he is, that he's going to rock people's face off."
Here's a meet-and-greet with the two actors who will play Buddy Holly.
From studying biomedicine to portraying a music icon is not as big a leap as it may seem, Mr. Christopher insists -- unless you consider that he had never played guitar when he was cast in "Buddy."
"My brother is an opera singer, so music has always been around me," he says, "But I was on the outside looking in, wishing desperately to be a part of that world."
Holly's trademark singing hiccup came easily to him, but when he won the role, he was told he would have to pick up guitar in 31/2 months. Mr. Christopher learned by doing, which entailed copying others and sometimes being thrown into the fire of a live performance. He played gigs with Eddy Weir, Holly's nephew, who would turn to him onstage and ask if he had learned a song yet. When the answer came back negative, Mr. Christopher would be told, "Well, you'd better figure it out, because you're about to play it in two minutes." He also worked with music director John Banister, who taught him the very specific movements that allow him to create the Buddy Holly illusion onstage.
Trying to make a go of a musical theater career has meant big changes in Mr. Christopher's life. In February, he bought a one-way ticket to New York, arriving with just a suitcase and his guitar. "No job, no home, just a friend's couch I had reserved for five days and I had to find something." Before the tour, he mostly could be found auditioning and working as a barista at Starbucks -- "I became a coffee master there," he says.
Pulling into Pittsburgh with the show is a big deal in the Christopher household.
"I grew up with the music, but mostly my father loved doo-wop," he said. "I spent a month at home between when I found I got the job and when we started rehearsal. My father of course Googled all of my tour dates. I was in the living room practicing, and he runs into the room and he goes, 'Andy, in Pittsburgh you guys are performing in the Benedum Center! That's where PBS films all of my doo-wop DVDs!' He was freaking out. So for his Father's Day-birthday-Christmas present, he's flying out and seeing the shows we are doing there."
After three years of playing Buddy Holly off and on, Mr. Christopher said he and his counterpart never feel they have learned it all. He still listens to the playlist of Holly songs on his iPod.
"When you break it down musically, it's not complex at all. At the same time, every time you hear a song he wrote and sings, there's something new you can discover. That to me is amazing, to write something that is that simple but that good and charming, that it never gets old."
The description on Mr. Jenkins' Twitter page @SkywaySpirit says, "I'm an artist who is Buddy Holly sometimes."
Growing up in Alabama, the singer said he would hear the "usual songs, like 'Peggy Sue' and 'That'll Be the Day,' " but it wasn't until he was cast as Holly that the music took hold.
"I heard the Weezer song 'Buddy Holly,' and everybody my age is like, 'Oh, you're playing Buddy Holly?' And they start singing that Weezer song. I knew the basics, but it was when I was cast and started getting deep into his work, it was this epiphany of, 'Why haven't I heard all this before?' It just made so much sense to me. It was very easy to fall in love with it."
These days, from Grand Bend, Ontario, to Pittsburgh, it's all Buddy Holly, all the time. There are no days off for the two Buddys; they play Tommy Allsup, who toured with Holly, when they are not in the lead.
"I've done the show before when I've done eight shows a week, and you can do it. But for such an extended period of time, it's not smart. ... Whoever you see really gives everything. The show is so high-energy. There's almost a comfort knowing that I'm going to blow it out tonight, then tomorrow, I'm going to be able to hang back and let the other guy do it. So whoever you see, you're getting a 100 percent show."
He repeats what he has written on his blog, that he is "living the dream, playing rock 'n' roll, honoring an American legend, getting paid to travel North America and good times in hotel rooms." And there's a party atmosphere every night at the end of "Buddy."
"It's so much fun, I dare you not to have a good time," Mr. Jenkins says. "There are always moments in the show where everyone just jumps on their feet or dance in the aisles. People go nuts."
Sharon Eberson: email@example.com or 412-263-1960.