August 22, 2008
Rock-By-the-Numbers Fails to Shed Light on Holly — ‘Buddy’ Captures His Look but Not His Musical Spirit
By Christopher Blank
Old-school rocker Buddy Holly was the subject of one of the first highly successful jukebox musicals, back in 1989.
Perhaps surprisingly, it debuted on London's West End, where it played for years , went on tour, and was even revived last year.
"Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story" didn't fare so well when it transferred to Broadway. But then, many popular British musicals don't quite translate into American culture, despite being about American culture. "Jerry Springer: The Opera," comes readily to mind. "Saturday Night Fever" is another import that floundered here.
If you're a fan of '50s rock, Buddy Holly and The Crickets in particular, then the show that kicks off the season at Playhouse on the Square will be just what the disc jockey ordered. Those expecting a revealing story, however, might find the production sluggish and unimaginative.
The actors play their own instruments and re-create the proto- garage rock sound that Holly's trio evoke on stripped-down tunes such as "Peggy Sue" and "That'll Be the Day." A substantial part of the first act takes place in a recording studio where the band develops the music that made them legends.
Writers Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson envision a scene in which Holly, portrayed as a kind of manic musical dweeb who could easily inspire a Weezer song, drives his bandmates to creative exhaustion. Holly is on a roll, desperate to break away from tradition.
In one moment of frazzled inspiration, he tells his drummer to rhythmically beat his chest while the producer's wife improvises on the celeste. His recording of the innocent "Everyday" is one of the few sentimental moments that catches the audience off guard.
The rest of the production is a rock-by-numbers portrait of his life and could be interchangeable with any musical biography: Artist finds his voice, gets discovered, falls in love, has creative differences with other artists, goes solo and ignores prophecies of impending doom.
Finally, the artist dies tragically.
But Holly's final adieu on the tarmac is left to the imagination. The musical ends with a blow-out 20-minute concert starring Holly, the Big Bopper ("Chantilly Lace") and a hip-swiveling Ritchie Valens ("La Bamba") at the Surf Ballroom in Iowa, shortly before the fatal flight carries the three of them to the stars.
Technically, the production is clunky . The set appears difficult to manage, the lighting is stark, and the sound murky at best. Knowing Holly's lyrics beforehand improves the listening experience.
Actor Todd Meredith has played the rocker in five previous productions. He certainly captures the look and sound of the young, bespectacled singer from Lubbock, Texas. He's not bad on lead guitar either. But the scripted role comes off as a paper thin depiction of Holly. There's no real sense of what makes him tick.
Buddy Holly's tunes were generally concise and explosive, and it follows that a musical about his life should have a similar feeling.
- Christopher Blank: 529-2305
"Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story
Through Sept. 14 at Playhouse on the Square. Shows are 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $35; $20 seniors and students, $15 children. Call 726-4656.
Originally published by Christopher Blank [email protected] .
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