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Holly Biography Is Nobody's 'Buddy' : * Pop: The production is a musical re-creation--not the real thing--which is all the Center can stand anyway.

March 19, 1992|MIKE BOEHM | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Mike Boehm covers pop music for The Times Orange County Edition.

COSTA MESA — Early in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," at the Orange County Performing Arts Center through Sunday, our hero is seen in a Nashville recording studio, fighting for his right to rock.

The session producer insists on country music; Holly has other ideas--namely, to play "some music the boppers want to hear." Segue to a rocking and bopping "That'll Be the Day."

It's a moment of deep irony for any lover of Holly and the rock tradition who happens to be acquainted with the arts center's booking history. During their five-plus years in business, the center managers have dismissed virtually all "music the boppers want to hear" as inappropriate fare.

But unlike, say, Jackson Browne or Bonnie Raitt or Stevie Wonder or David Byrne (or any other substantial contemporary rock figure with an adult audience that doesn't have to be paper-trained before it enters an upscale hall), "Buddy" comes with a pedigree the center will accept: First a hit in London's West End, then on Broadway and now a Notthe Real Thingtouring production, "Buddy" isn't Rock at all but Musical Theater, and therefore permissible.

Like "Elvis: A Musical Celebration," a pathetic act of cannibalism that the center promoted three years ago, "Buddy" may be about somebody who once played rock 'n' roll, but that somebody is safely dead.

Watch out, though. At least in its musical numbers, this "Buddy" really comes alive. It's something the boppers well might want to hear.

Chip Esten, in the title role, not only looks and sounds like Holly but captures the great rocker's deeper essence. Holly didn't stake his claim with flamboyant antics on stage or wild exploits off it. He was a fiercely creative and independent artist who wouldn't be bound by a narrow definition of rock.

He drew upon country and R&B, upon folk and Latin influences, and upon old-fashioned pop balladry--an incredible amount of ground to cover in such a short performing life (he was just 22 when he died in a plane crash in 1959, barely three years after he began recording).

At OCPAC, the stage set, festooned with vintage billboards advertising everything from shirts to chewing gum to Campbell's soup, suggests that Holly created against a backdrop of unbridled commercialism (not a surprising commentary given the production's British authorship. Over there, they think we're nothing if not crass, and heck, they're probably right).

The truth is that Holly discovered in rock an outlet for passion and pure life-force that makes his music endure. His famous singing-hiccup may have served as a commercially helpful ID tag. But more than that, it was a way of conveying inner exuberance too great to be communicated by conventional singing.

Esten captures the combination of conviction and delight we hear in Holly's recordings. His musical performance yields little if anything to Gary Busey's acclaimed portrayal of Holly in the 1978 film "The Buddy Holly Story."

Esten is better rendering Holly the singer than Holly the guitarist. He fails to muster the distinctive, stinging chordal licks that give "Not Fade Away" and several other Holly rockers a special tang. And his solo picking is tentative at times, especially on the milder "Blue Days Black Nights." He does get in some good strokes on the rousing show-closer, "Johnny B. Goode" (Esten solos while show-boating with his Stratocaster held behind the back of his head).

The music, except for brief transitional snippets prerecorded by the cast, is all performed in real time. Esten and the two Crickets (Tom Nash as drummer Jerry Allison and Bobby Prochaska as bass-fiddle player Joe B. Mauldin) interact musically as a real band would, although the script fails to explore how their musical camaraderie developed.

Perhaps a scene showing them tossing song ideas back and forth during a writing session (as Holly and the Crickets actually did) could have enriched the character development as well as the musical portrait.

There is one bizarre and unforgivable omission: "Well All Right," which features Holly's finest lyrics and stands as a premonition of the entire folk-rock movement, gets barely a glance, tossed off in seconds as transitional material. Better to include a full treatment of this classic than, say, the bland bit by a doo-wop ensemble that leads off the musical's long final segment, a recreation of Holly's last show (along with numbers by the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens) at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa.

Before that boisterous sequence arrives, the second act is a desert from a rock lover's point of view. The music flows briskly in Act I but until the closing rock-out, Act II offers only one song--"True Love Ways," which Esten renders sweetly in a solo-acoustic performance.

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