COSTA MESA — They're thinking of putting Buddy Holly's picture on a postage stamp, just like Elvis Presley's.
And why not? Holly was the exemplary rock 'n' roller. Indeed, his image in life--as in the synthetic touring musical about him at the Orange County Performing Arts Center--couldn't have been cleaner if it were airbrushed.
Accordingly, the ersatz performance as delivered Tuesday by Chip Esten, the star of "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," is an attempt to memorialize all that was best about the boy from Lubbock, Tex., who became a musical legend with his glasses on.
What was best, of course, were the songs. He had 10 big hits over a span of 15 months before he died in a plane crash in 1959 at age 22.
Esten does those golden oldies--"That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," "Oh Boy," "Maybe Baby," to name just a few--with all the '50s-vintage innocence you could ask for.
The problem, though, is how to dramatize the rest of Holly's clean-cut life, which not only was cut short but which lacked the sort of up-from-under struggle that makes for interesting show-biz heroics.
There were no victories over poverty. No victories over alcohol or drugs. No triumph over racial discrimination. Nobody stood in Holly's way or offered more than minor resistance, not even the usual collection of fire-and-brimstone preachers, according to "Buddy."
Holly's artistic struggle, if you can call it that, extends feebly through the sketchiest first act imaginable and lacks any dramatic impact. One of the many hokey anticlimaxes comes in a thin scene with a country record producer in Nashville.
"You've got to be the biggest no-talent I've ever worked with," the producer tells the incipient rock 'n' roller during their first recording session.
"I just want to make my music my way," says Buddy, sticking up for his principles with a nerdy pout. "I don't want to be a country star."
That's it, folks.
Once past that first bump in the road, Holly simply goes straight to the top. There are no real detours. Even when he is booked at the Apollo Theater in Harlem--in the mistaken belief that he and the Crickets are a black act--the reception is miraculous.
"You cats are outta sight--gimme some skin!" says the once skeptical Apollo emcee after his conversion to the Buddy Holly fan club.
When it comes to the dialogue, no cliche is left unused.
As for the pair of major events in Holly's life that might have lent themselves to dramatization--his breakup with the Crickets and his marriage to a Puerto Rican receptionist for a record company--they, too, are treated with tepid cliches, as though not worth exploring.
Esten's performance as an actor, meanwhile, never rises above the level of community theater, nor do those of Lauree Taradash (who plays his wife, Maria Elena) or Bobby Prochaska and Tom Nash (as the Crickets).
Given their material--songs aside--it doesn't matter. The script of this show makes the "Elvis" musical that stopped at the arts center a few years ago seem in retrospect like high-tech Shakespeare.
Beneath the urge to memorialize its subject, moreover, "Buddy" turns out to be sheer exploitation. It panders to the audience with an aura of nostalgia (the set is plastered with '50s posters), even while condescending to the material (all those arch put-downs of country music as "square," for instance, couldn't be more ludicrous coming as they do from a show as square as this one).
Nothing illustrates the manipulative aspect of "Buddy" better than the extended Act II finale, which re-creates Holly's last concert with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper before they all got on the plane that crashed. The world of rock 'n' roll may have trembled when that plane went down, but "Buddy" doesn't. Their deaths are duly noted by a momentary blink of the lights, and the finale continues.
The greatest irony of Tuesday's performance, however, came during the pandemonium of a standing ovation. The hard-working Estes, hopping Holly-like across the stage on his knees, unwittingly pulled the electrical cord from his amplified guitar. He didn't notice for a moment. His frenzied fingers just kept strumming.
"Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story"
Chip Esten: Buddy Holly
Bobby Prochaska: Joe B. Mauldin
Tom Nash: Jerry Allison
Robin Haynes: Norman Petty
Jo Lynn Burks: Vi Petty
Lauree Taradash: Maria Elena
Thom Culcasi: Murray Deutch
Judi Dozier: M Shirley
Gayton Scott: Maria Elena's aunt
Anastasia Glasheen: Peggy Sue/Mary Lou Sokoloff
Kim Story: Clear Lake M.C.
Brian Ruf: The Big Bopper/Decca producer/DJ (WWOL)
Philip Anthony: Ritchie Valens/KDAV Engineer
Produced by Tom Mallow, ATP/Dodger and Pace Theatrical Group by arrangement with Paul Elliott, Laurie Mansfield, Greg Smith and David Mirvish. Written by Alan Janes. Directed by Rob Bettinson. Lighting by Ken Billington. Designed by Andy Walmsley. Tour design by Michael Hotopp. Original sound by Rick Price. Tour sound by John Kilgore. Musical director Paul Jury. Executive producer George MacPherson. Continues through Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Show times: Thursday though Sunday at 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets: $21 to $44. Running time 2 hours, 47 minutes. Information: (714) 556-2787.
* \o7 Jan Herman covers theater for The Times Orange County Edition. \f7
* HAPPY DAYS
Center supporters and the stars of the musical go back in time at Ruby's Diner. Ann Conway column. E2