To call Jeff Giles, the star of Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story, a triple-threat performer does not begin to cover all his special talents.
He can sing. He can dance. He can act. He can hammer a nail into his nose.
Giles, who last week blew out 30 candles on his birthday cake, didn't need to showcase all those abilities to land the role of Holly, the bespectacled nerd rocker whose shocking death in 1959 plane crash is famously remembered as "the day the music died."
It might have also died for the Ottawa-born budding singing star in Hamilton if he had continued his sideshow act as a juggler, fire-eater, magician and gross-out artist who was known to pound a four-and-a-half inch nail up his nostril. Only a teenager, Giles was already experiencing burnout from storing kerosene in his mouth.
"It was starting to irritate my lungs and I got short of breath," says Giles, now based in Toronto, during a recent interview. "I got a burn on the inside of my mouth. It made me ask myself -- what do I value more? -- and I made the call. My singing voice."
That was what got him an ensemble role in a Buddy production in Sudbury, Ont., in 1998 and 10 days later he was playing the title role in another production at the Port Hope Festival Theatre, this time getting to sing such Holly standards as That'll Be the Day, Peggy Sue and Rave On.
The biographical salute, which opens tonight at Rainbow Stage, is structured around a pair of concerts: Holly and the Crickets were the first white act at Harlem's Apollo Theatre; and his final show with Ritchie Valens, The Big Bopper and Dion at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, not far from their plane's crash site.
The Rainbow run is his seventh Buddy production after revivals in Charlottetown, P.E.I., his hometown Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton and a 12-week run at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre in Edmonton. He has performed the part more than 100 times and is keen for more.
"I find a lot of value coming back to a show I've done before," says the York University graduate. "It's always different. I can see how much I've grown as a performer and human.
Buddy's story follows the lanky hayseed from Lubbock, Texas, who refused to play country music or take off his black glasses. Giles is often told that he sounds like Holly but he doesn't naturally look like him until he gets his hair styled and dons those signature spectacles. But there are also his physical tics to nail down.
"Buddy Holly would keep time with his right heel and that leads to a specific way of playing," says Giles. "Elvis had the hips, Buddy had the heel."
Giles, the guitarist, is working on his own music and will perform a cabaret show of his own material at Theatre Aquarius next November. He hopes there is an album in his future and considers Holly a role model.
"Buddy knew exactly what he wanted to do," says Giles, who grew up listening to Holly on cassette in the car while the family was travelling to the cottage. "He was stubborn and wouldn't take no for an answer. He was one of the first to do double-tracking on his own voice. He wasn't afraid to experiment. It's something I keep in mind. The important thing is to keep writing and try new things."
He can thank his mother for getting him onstage in the first place. Giles was a typically bored 13-year-old looking for something to do when his mom suggested acting classes.
"She knew I was pretty shy but said that when I get onstage I come alive, that when someone puts a microphone in my hand I become a big ham," says Giles, who will appear in the Gershwin musical comedy Crazy For You in Barrie, Ont., in July.
He enrolled in the performing arts program at Theatre Aquarius and was there for six summers in shows including Fame, Pippin and Footloose. Prominent Toronto agent Bruce Dean saw him in the latter show, worked with him and still represents him.
"My mother was right," he says. "Being onstage gave me more confidence in my everyday life. It turned me into an extrovert."
Buddy is not Giles' Winnipeg debut. He was in the ensemble in the 2009 Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre production of The Boys in the Photograph, by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Ben Elton. It went on to Toronto, where the cast got to meet the composing team and their friend, U2's Bono, who came to look at the story about a team of soccer players in civil war-ridden Belfast in 1969.
"It was one of the highlights of my career, for sure," says Giles.