Review: “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story”

SLIGHTLY RECOMMENDED

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.
When: through June 30
Tickets: $22-$85
Phone: 800-775-2000

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

I’ve seen the 1989 juke box musical “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story” several times, each time anticipating a lively nostalgia-filled evening showcasing many of the ground-breaking rock ’n’ roller’s terrific songs.  

And almost every time, I’ve been disappointed.

The latest touring production is no exception. It’s not that the show isn’t filled with a bevy of Holly classics, among them “That’ll Be the Day,” “Everyday” (one of my favorites), “Peggy Sue” and “Oh Boy.” And the recreation of the final Clear Lake concert in 1959 is a killer with Ryan G. Dunkin as The Big Bopper and Ryan Jagru as a spot-on Ritchie Valens joining Holly to belt out “Chantilly Lace” and “La Bamba” (respectively) before all three go down together in that fateful plane crash. 
It’s just that Alan Janes’ script is a poorly structured cliché-ridden mess, Norb Joerder’s direction and choreography are lackluster and Andy Christopher’s Holly isn’t all it could be. (He alternates in the role with Kurt Jenkins.) Many of the supporting performances are broad and cartoonish, diminishing the possibility of truthfulness to zero. And the sound system is cranked up so high, especially for the early scenes, that the music sounds awful. 

The story follows the by now too familiar pattern. Starting out in Lubbock, Texas, Holly and the Crickets, represented here by Joe Cosmo Cogen as Jerry Allison and Sam Weber as Joe B. Mauldin, break the country mold by insisting on playing rock ’n’ roll. Local radio host/band manager Hipockets Duncan (Steve Gagliastro) objects but remains a loyal supporter, landing Holly a contract with Decca Records that proves disastrous, then hooking him up with producer Norman Petty (Eric Scott Anthony) to record the music he wants to play the way he insists on playing it.

One problem is that we only hear recorded tidbits of most of the songs in the big session with Petty and his wife, Vi (Carrie A. Johnson), because their live performance is saved for later. The exception is “Everyday,” which is missing its usual delicacy, partly because the celesta isn’t real.

Rising quickly up the charts – with some silly self-congratulatory onstage filler – Holly and the boys eventually land in New York City – at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem – for the first act finale. There are a handful of rousing songs, but the premise is embarrassingly preposterous and the shtick is smarmy. We’re supposed to believe that the white band had no idea that Harlem was predominantly Black, and that the Black performers got a kick out of ridiculing them.

In Act II, Holly meets and marries Maria Elena Santiago (Noellia Hernandez), conflicts arise with the Crickets (some of them over her), the band splits up and Holly goes his own way, taking his music in new directions and himself on the road – to that frigid night in Clear Lake. The most shocking detail is that he was only 22 when he died (and Valens was only 17).

I could be more forgiving of the formulaic tale if Christopher were anywhere near as charismatic as Holly. He’s a decent singer and electric guitar player, but that’s about it. He just doesn’t have the moves. The couple of times he tries to do the signature Holly hop across the stage, it’s sad; his guitar isn’t even at the right angle. Weber as Joe B. easily upstages him with his antics on, over, under and around the bass.
        
Since Holly’s love for Maria Elena is supposed to take precedence over practically everything, it’s a pity that there isn’t more chemistry between them and that she comes across as something of a nagging shrew, an impression Hernandez doesn’t do anything to soften.

If hearing Holly’s songs performed live is enough for you, “Buddy – The Buddy Holly Story” is worth seeing. But I found myself thinking that there’s more of a story than what’s being told and it’s about time for a fitting tribute to one of rock’s real originals.