‘Buddy,’ and Brian Dalen Gunn, return to the Spokane area

June 30, 2016 GMT

Brian Dalen Gunn is quick to point out that he has more in common with Buddy Holly than a passing physical resemblance. Both men, Galen says, were the youngest children in their families, and Gunn’s childhood nickname was “Buddy.” Both of their fathers were involved in the flooring industry. Both of them picked up the violin before the guitar. Holly was born nearsighted, while Gunn was born partially deaf.

“I just keep finding more and more connections with Buddy Holly,” Gunn said, “these little snippets that I learn about him.”

Gunn has made a career out of playing the bespectacled rock ’n’ roll pioneer in the stage musical “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” touring the country with various productions since first playing the role on Spokane Civic Theatre’s stage in 2010. That original production was directed by Yvonne A.K. Johnson, who’s also at the helm of this one, the debut show of the new Spokane Valley Summer Theatre.

“It’s always wonderful to come back and attack it as fresh as I can,” Gunn said. “We really have a fantastic crew this year. Rehearsals have just been a blast.”

Although “Buddy” features wall-to-wall songs, all performed live – the soundtrack showcases more than a dozen of Holly’s legendary tunes, as well as rock standards like “Johnny B. Goode,” “La Bamba” and “Chantilly Lace” – Gunn says “Buddy” isn’t so much a traditional musical as a “play with music.”

The play opens in Holly’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas, when the musician is still a teenager and his career is just starting to take off. It continues through his falling out with Decca Records, his rocky relationship with his backing band the Crickets, his groundbreaking performance at the Apollo Theater and his romance with receptionist María Elena Santiago.

And it ends, as Holly’s life did, in Clear Lake, Iowa, on the night of Feb. 3, 1959, which has since been dubbed “the day the music died.” That doesn’t mean, however, that “The Buddy Holly Story” is a downer.

“Even though it shows the tragedy, the audience leaves excited,” Gunn said. “We go out with a bang, for sure.”

In the years that he’s been donning those thick-framed glasses and plugging in his Fender Stratocaster, Gunn says his feelings toward Buddy Holly, both as a historical figure and as a character, have deepened and evolved.

“I try not to impersonate him, so to speak,” Gunn said, admitting that he’s deliberately never seen Gary Busey’s Oscar-nominated turn as the rock star in the 1978 film “The Buddy Holly Story.” “As an actor, if you try too hard to be something else, it comes across as disingenuous.”

Holly is considered one of the most influential musicians of the ’50s, and his blend of rockabilly, country and rock helped guide the trajectory of early pop music. The reason his decades-old work still feels vital, Gunn says, because there’s an honesty at its core.

“Buddy was raw and honest. He was always craving something new,” Gunn said. “Had Buddy Holly not died, he would have been bigger than Elvis, bigger than the Beatles. … That’s the crazy mystery – what would music be like today if Buddy Holly was still alive? He was ahead of his time. He was kind of a Nostradamus of music.”

“Buddy” will kick off Spokane Valley Summer Theatre’s debut season, which will also include productions of “Oliver!” and “Bring It On: The Musical.” Gunn serves as the theater’s managing director, alongside Johnson, who’s the executive artistic director, and his wife, Ashley, the director of education. SVST will also host an acting conservatory for students.

“(Yvonne) has always wanted to bring professional summer theater to Spokane,” Gunn said. “She’s had a vision, Ashley and I have had a vision, and it all just pulled together at a wonderful time.”