Actor finds tools to express a legend's power

Posted Online: Jan. 15, 2014, 11:04 am
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By Jonathan Turner,
For Dalen Gunn, playing the immortal Buddy Holly for the third time definitely will be the charm.

The enthusiastic, articulate 27-year-old Wisconsin native -- who grew up in north Idaho -- is starring in the new production of "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story" at Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, Rock Island. The international hit musical, which debuted in London in 1989 and has been seen by 22 million people, chronicles the meteoric rise and sudden death of the young Charles Hardin Holley, who died at 22 in a plane crash on Feb 3, 1959.

"Buddy was a visionary. Buddy was ahead of his time," Mr. Gunn said at Circa recently. "There are so many great artists he wanted to work with. We took a big hit as a planet, definitely the music world took a big hit, because of what happened. God only knows what that boy was capable of, year after year, particularly with how prolific he was."

He first played Buddy in 2010 in Spokane, Wash., and the five-week run sold out, so the same theater brought it back in 2011, also starring Mr. Gunn, which nearly sold out before the first performance.

"It's because it's good music. It's that simple," he said of the biographical concert production. "No, it's great music. If you're human, you respond to great food, and this is food for your soul. Buddy was passionate, he was uncensored. ... People have a respect for honesty. You sense that in his music."

"Buddy" was first done at Circa in 2008, and in addition to many Holly hits (like "That'll Be the Day," "Words of Love," True Love Ways," "Oh Boy" and "Everyday"), it has other favorites of the period like "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," "Shout," "Chantilly Lace," "La Bamba" and "Johnny B. Goode."

(Tristan Tapscott, the show drummer, also has presented "Oh Boy," a Holly tribute, many times at The District and former Harrison Hilltop theaters.)

Mr. Gunn has a few things in common with the rock pioneer, even though he had no idea who he was before auditioning the first time. "Buddy" was Mr. Gunn's nickname as a little boy, the youngest of three. He doesn't read music and is partially deaf (a condition he was born with) and identifies with Buddy's vision problems.

"He learned to make a statement with his glasses. It's very inspiring for me," Mr. Gunn said. "Just as he didn't let his vision affect what he wanted to do, I don't let my hearing affect me. I can still sing, I can still play."

"I love to communicate to people and commune with people," he said. "One of the fun things I love about theater, it actually becomes a world that I'm not deaf in. I don't have to say 'What?' because I know what the next line is. It's an escape for me in many ways."

Having played violin since he was 8, he learns music (ironically) by ear. He didn't even know how to play guitar before he did his first Buddy.

"The beauty of a show like this is I got bass and drums right there, so I can feel rhythm through the floor and it's just 'Go, go, go,' " Mr. Gunn said.

"He was relentless -- he had endless amounts of energy, didn't want to stop. That was something ingrained in his soul," Mr. Gunn said.

The historic tale covers the last three years in Holly's life, featuring songs of others who died in the plane crash -- Ritchie Valens and J.P. ("The Big Bopper") Richardson. At the time, Buddy's band, The Crickets, had broken up, he was living in New York with his new wife Maria (he proposed the same day they met in 1958), and Buddy was desperate for money.

The two-week "Winter Dance Party" tour (which included Waylon Jennings) started Jan. 23, 1959, in Milwaukee, and stopped at Davenport's Capitol Theatre on Jan. 29. Their last show was in Clear Lake, Iowa (230 miles from Rock Island) on Feb. 2, and in a snowstorm, Holly's small plane crashed soon after take-off (as they were headed to the next gig in Fargo, N.D.) shortly after 1 a.m. Feb. 3.

Circa director Ann Nieman notes there is a "Buddy" show on Feb. 2, and wants to be sure her cast doesn't go anywhere afterward.

"It's a very hard-working group, very organized. It's a pleasure to be here," Mr. Gunn said. "You take a great team, you take this script; Ann has amazing vision."

"She's been wonderful, she knows where she wants to go," he added. "If you can take those elements, put it together, stay true to Buddy's spirit, his essence, it's just a great show."

"It closes in a very beautiful way. It's very poignant," Mr. Gunn said. "It addresses his death in a very respectful, tasteful and poignant way. It sheds light that the music still lives on."

A graduate of Circle In The Square Theatre School in New York City, he finished the two-year program last summer and said it's made him a better actor.

"It made me a more effective communicator. I'm not as lost -- I'm more confident," Mr. Gunn said. "It's given me tools to more effectively do what it is I need to do."

If you go

-- What: "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story."
-- When: Tonight through March 8; Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays 7:45 p.m., Sundays at 5:45 p.m., and Wednesday matinees at 1:30 p.m.
-- Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $49.12 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $43.37 for the plated-lunch matinees, with reduced prices for students and groups of 12 or more, available at the box office, or call 309-786-7733, ext. 2.


Local events heading

  Today is Thursday, Oct. 2, the 275th day of 2014. There are 90 days left in the year.

1864 -- 150 years ago: The ladies have adopted the fashion of wearing representations of insects in the flowers on their bonnets. Some look very natural.
1889 -- 125 years ago: T.F. Cary, former Rock Island alderman, has accepted a position as salesman for a Chicago wallpaper house and plans to move to that city.
1914 -- 100 years ago: Work on the new telephone building on 18th Street between 6th and 7th avenues is progressing rapidly.
1939 -- 75 years ago: Rock Island's new theater at 3rd Avenue and 19th Street will have a name significant of its location. The "Rocket" is scheduled to open Thanksgiving Day.
1964 -- 50 years ago: Two of Rock Island's newest water towers were vandalized last night, including the one at 38th Street and 31st Avenue, where police took five Moline boys into custody about 9 p.m..
1989 -- 25 years ago: Some of us who live in the Quad-Cities take the Mississippi River for granted, or at least we used to. But the river is not taken for granted by our visitors. And most Quad-Citians are realizing the importance of the river to this area as increased emphasis is placed on tourism.

(More History)