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THEATER REVIEW

Formulaic 'Buddy' strangely moving

The touring 'Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story' reaches its peak as the career of the short-lived rock 'n' roller is ending.

March 09, 2004|Rob Kendt | Special to The Times

Early rock 'n' roll isn't my music; it wasn't even my parents' music (Pat Boone and Rosemary Clooney were more their speed). It has no special emotional access, no reservoir of nostalgia to be tapped in this post-punk heart of mine.

So how to explain the deep wellspring of feeling released -- and not only in me but also across a matinee audience of all ages -- by the rocking final half-hour of the road-tested concert-musical contraption "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," which kicked off the Southern California leg of its latest tour at Long Beach's cavernous Terrace Theatre last weekend?

It's no thanks, certainly, to the show's first two hours or so. Alan Janes' script offers up soft-serve bio-drama in scenes as wispy as the sweet, willful teen from Lubbock, Texas, who doesn't want to be a country singer but a rock 'n' roller, no matter how "colored" it makes him sound.

"The nicest guy in the world until the subject is music," is how a fatherly Texas DJ (David Burr) describes ornery young Buddy Holly. Why, this upstart won't even take off his horn-rimmed specs onstage! What'll those crazy kids think of next?

As played by the fresh-faced Brendan R. Murphy, Buddy never seems anything but too cute, even when he's breaking up his band or putting the moves on a record company receptionist (Elia Saldana).

But when he performs Holly's jangly, ardent pop confections -- "Not Fade Away," "Peggy Sue," "Rave On" -- Murphy's boy-next-door charm puts across the show's central conceit, or at least its main selling point: that shiny, happy rock 'n' roll is as innocuously all-American as bunting and fireworks, and that even guys with glasses -- maybe especially those guys -- can rise to the top of the Hit Parade.

It's classic American dream material, in other words, and no more so than in the first-act closer, when Holly and his band, the Crickets, turn up at Harlem's Apollo Theater and win over an all-black crowd -- or at least a cackling emcee (Anthony Powell) -- with a persuasively kicking set. This fraught episode is played less for racial resonance than for fish-out-of-water laughs and come-from-behind glory.

It's not until its home stretch that the show really takes off. In an ostensible re-creation of Holly's last gig with a pair of touring mates -- the swaggering Big Bopper (Spencer Wilson) and the ebullient Ritchie Valens (Davitt Felder), both of whom later died with Holly in a small-plane crash -- the entire cast joins on a bandstand in front of ruffled curtains and rocks the house.

Don Dally's music direction pumps up Holly's tunes to rock-Broadway levels without overwhelming them (no arranger is credited).

Admittedly, it all feels a bit like a Lawrence Welk variety show idealization of rock 'n' roll; this is the kind of rock show in which the frontman is more likely to break a suspender than a guitar string.

But it also resembles a kind of showbiz afterlife -- a big jam session in the sky. When Holly, the Big Bopper and Valens strap on guitars to rip through Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," complete with duck walk, it's a joyous orgy of faux-stalgia.

It's not enough to redeem the rambling, pedestrian narrative that precedes it. But the large-spirited energy of this iconic hoedown is enough to move us, in every sense.

*

'Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story'

Where: Presented by Theater League at Kavli Theatre, Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 Thousand Oaks Blvd., Thousand Oaks

When: Today-Friday, 8 p.m.; Saturday, 2 and 8 p.m.; Sunday, 7 p.m.

Ends: Sunday

Price: $36.50-$45.50

Contact: (805) 583-8700, (213) 365-3500

Running time: 2 hours, 40 minutes

Also

Where: Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena

When: March 26-27, 8 p.m.; March 28, 7 p.m.; March 27-28, 2 p.m.

Ends: March 28

Price: $42.50-$52.50

Contact: (213) 365-3500

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