Where: American Blues Theater at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave.
When: through May 26
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Every time I see Alan Janes’ 1989 “Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story,” I’m struck by the fact that, except for the music, this early jukebox musical is not really a very good show. The story of the ground-breaking rock ‘n’ roller’s rise and untimely demise is formulaic, and anyway there’s not much of it, because his career spanned only a few years. A few witty exchanges aside, much of the dialogue is fairly lame and designed mostly to fill in plot points between the songs.
But with the right actor in the title role and good musical direction, the show can be a lot of fun. Happily, American Blues Theater has both.
Zachary Stevenson, a veteran of more than ten productions of “Buddy” as well as of other jukebox musicals, seems to be channeling Holly. He not only has the guitar playing, vocal style, and physical moves down pat, he lets us see the determination and enthusiasm and sometimes frustration of a gifted young man who knew what he wanted and overcame the odds to get it. When he’s performing classic songs like “That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Oh Boy,” and “Maybe Baby,” the infectious joy practically radiates from him.
Musical director Michael Mahler, who doubles as Cricket electric guitarist Tommy, has done a fine job of making sure the numbers sound like they should, though from my seat in the first row, the balance in Rick Sims’ sound design was sometimes a little off. Of the other two Crickets, Kieran McCabe is dynamite as Jerry the drummer, and Shaun Whitley holds his own as Joe, the bassist, even climbing his instrument for the finale.
Strong performances also come from Vasily Deris as J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Cisco Lopez as Ritchie Valens, who bring down the house (or almost) with their renditions of “Chantilly Lace” and “La Bomba” at the final concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa as part of “The Winter Dance Party Tour” before the fatal plane crash that killed them, the pilot, and Holly. That concert dominates the second act, with Holly playing some songs —like “True Love Ways” written for his wife, Maria Elena (Molly Hernandez)–that suggest how his music was evolving, as well as ending with a rousing Johnny B Goode.”
The first act finale is the scene at the Apollo Theater in New York, where Buddy Holly and the Crickets were booked in August 1957 because they were mistakenly believed to be a black group. The focus is on how they turn around a potentially hostile African American audience with their hip rock, but before they go on, we’re treated to a delightful number by Apollo performers Chuckie Benson and Angela Alise. The entire ensemble joins in for the set pieces in both acts, underscoring how music transcends barriers.
If we are to believe Janes’ script, Holly not only was a musical genius well ahead of his time, he also was the nicest, most ethical guy in the world, albeit a bit impulsive and pig headed. Anything that goes wrong in this hagiography is somebody else’s fault.
When his early supporter, DJ Hi Pockets (Ian Paul Custer), gets him a contract with Decca Records and he clashes with the execs, it’s not so much because he won’t play the country music he agreed to, but because they’re too stupid to realize that he’s right about the importance of rock ‘n’ roll. When the rift occurs with Norman Petty (Derek Hasenstab), the recording studio owner/manager who essentially puts him on the map, it’s the result partly of racial tension between Petty’s wife Vi (Liz Chidester) and Maria Elena, who is Puerto Rican. The other reason is that Holly wants to be in New York and the other Crickets prefer Texas where they started. They’ve made a deal with Petty behind his back, even though earlier he’d refused Decca’s demand that he ditch them.
The way Janes distributes the songs also is annoying. Particularly during an all-night recording session that demonstrates the perfectionism of both Holly and Petty, we get just snippets of many songs performed later in their entirety. The one compensation is “Everyday,” the delicate number that is my Holly favorite.
Director Lili-Anne Brown elicits workmanlike, if uneven, performances from the actors, some of whom play multiple roles. Choreographer Jon Martinez pulls off a couple of coups, given the limitations of the dancers and the stage space.
The scenic design by Sarah E. Ross tries to suggest a variety of locations, but I found it ugly and couldn’t figure out what the ceiling trusses were supposed to represent. Jared Gooding’s lighting is serviceable, and Samantha C. Jones’ costumes have highs and lows.
When all is said and done, the main reason to see “Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story” is Stevenson’ star turn as the title character.