Rock-and-roll lore holds that in his first public performance, in a Texas talent show, five-year-old Buddy Holly sang “Down the River of Memories.” That’s exactly where this British musical based on Holly’s life and legend aims to take its audience, and thanks to a package of great Holly hits and a warm and commanding lead performance by actor-singer-guitarist Chip Esten it succeeds as splashy, unabashedly sentimental entertainment. Tracing the rockabilly star’s whirlwind evolution from headstrong amateur to road-weary veteran–from his first unsuccessful Nashville recording efforts to his death at age 22–Alan Janes’s script is sometimes laughably simplistic in its depiction of the process by which Holly synthesized country, bluegrass, and blues into a fresh and highly influential sound. But this slick touring production directed by Rob Bettinson hits its stride in the extended concert sequences that climax each of the shows two acts. The first re-creates the barrier-breaking appearance Holly and his all-white Crickets ensemble made at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre; the second is a boisterous final performance by Holly and fellow rock stars Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, just before the plane trip that killed them. Brimming with vocal and instrumental talent–including Bobby Prochaska and Colin Gray as the Crickets, Brian Ruf as Big Bopper, Alex Paez as Valens, and Vanessa A. Jones as an Apollo soul diva–Buddy bursts with vintage songs (“That’ll Be the Day,” “Peggy Sue,” “Not Fade Away,” “Everyday,” “La Bamba”) and good feeling. Rave on. Shubert Theatre, through July 26 (22 W. Monroe, 902-1500). Tuesdays and Thursdays, 7:30 PM; Wednesdays, 2 and 7:30 PM; Fridays, 8 PM; Saturdays, 2 and 8 PM; Sundays, 3 PM. $12-$40.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Lamont.