BUDDY . . . THE BUDDY HOLLY STORY
The subject of Buddy . . . The Buddy Holly Story is a rock star. But the show’s theme–and the basis of the energetic good feeling it engenders–is racial understanding, a unity born of diversity. In an age when the notion of American multiculturalism seems to be tearing apart under the strain of various populations’ competition for pieces of an ever-shrinking pie, Buddy preaches that we are all one nation under God and rock and roll. (Has any other pop-star biography noted that its subject tithed to his church?) And the message seems to work, judging from the enthusiasm with which audiences almost unfailingly respond to this show.
Originally created for London’s West End, Buddy is making its way through the American heartland following a Broadway run. Last month a big-budget road company played two weeks at the Shubert; now a second, smaller-scale tour is being launched here by Pegasus Players and Big League Theatricals. Pegasus’s Buddy can’t compete with the Shubert show’s level of glitz and glossiness, nor does it try. What it does offer is a gentle, gritty directness, some peppy dance sequences, and an engaging and solid ensemble under Victoria Bussert’s direction.
Though he’s got nowhere near the stage presence, voice, or dance ability that Chip Esten exhibited at the Shubert, Christopher Eudy makes a likable Buddy once he outgrows the adolescent peevishness that mars his early scenes (when he comes perilously close to imitating Saturday Night Live’s church lady). Lindsay Jones and John Noyes hold their own as Buddy’s fellow Crickets (in real life Eudy, Jones, and Noyes have a rock band called Nubile Thang). Fine support comes from Jason Singer as Buddy’s DJ pal Hipockets (Singer also blows some tasty sax in the later concert scenes), David Boughn and Ramon Lyon as the rock stars Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, Cynthia Suarez as Buddy’s wife Maria Elena, Senuwell Smith as an Apollo Theatre emcee, and Pat McRoberts as doo-wop crooner Jack Daw. The chorus achieves good vocal balance under Jim O’Connell’s musical direction (though the band tends to overwhelm the singers in the show’s climactic rave-ups), and Tom Reiter’s costumes and Steve Wheeldon’s set (a giant jukebox framed by a mural depicting James Dean, Jackie Gleason, Elvis Presley, and an “I Like Ike” button) cleverly convey the 1950s ethos.
The script (by Alan Janes, Laurie Mansfield, and Rob Bettinson, but significantly and effectively trimmed by Bussert) takes a swift but simpleminded approach that leaves little room for subtlety. It tells the story in broad, sweeping strokes, rather like a comic book with music, following the last years of Holly’s short life–from 1956, when he and the Crickets started making the shift from rockabilly to rock and roll, to 1959, when the band had broken up and Holly, touring as a soloist, was killed in a plane crash at age 22.
The core of the show, of course, is its score. While the emphasis is on Holly’s rock hits–“Peggy Sue,” “That’ll Be the Day,” “Rave On,” “Oh Boy”–the show also makes room for bluegrass, country, rhythm and blues, and soul. This Buddy doesn’t feel the need to assert rock’s primacy by smugly bashing everything else.
This is in keeping with the show’s larger concerns, which lift it above the standard biographical pageant. Repeatedly driving home the notion of its hero as an impetuous but insistent integrationist, Buddy shows young Holly, armed with his jangly guitar and trademark vocal hiccup, beating back racism on all sides. Warned by a white man that his music has “a colored beat,” he proclaims that he takes that as a compliment; defying the sneers of black performers at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre (where he and his “Chirping” Crickets were one of the first white acts to perform), he wows the crowd and wins over his mockers with his punchy, tom-tom-driven rock hit “Peggy Sue.” Smitten with his New York publisher’s Puerto Rican secretary, he proposes to her on their first date, brushing off her concerns about their racial and religious differences.
Portraying Holly as a moral and musical prophet, Buddy closes with an extended musical sequence that transforms an already heightened event–Holly’s last concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, on February 2, 1959–into an epiphanic ritual, with Holly headlining a multiracial musical menagerie: he himself, the skinny, spectacled, clean-cut prom date; that oversize cracker clown Big Bopper; tightly tailored Chicano rocker Ritchie Valens; a tuxedoed, integrated dance band; and not one but two backup girl groups–one clad in white teen-queen crinolines, the other sheathed in soul-diva glitter gowns. This isn’t just a concert; it’s Rock America, having wholesome fun while breaking down barriers. Amazing what a couple choruses of “Johnny B. Goode” can do.
Would that it were that simple. But one of the purposes of music and theater is to elevate society’s expectations of itself; maybe, just maybe, an audience that has given a standing ovation to Buddy’s mighty multiracial vision of life might look a little more closely and critically and notice how far short of that vision reality falls.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Roger Lewin–Jennifer Girard Studio.