Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story
For nearly an hour, the Drury Lane Theatre's production of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story exemplifies why some rock and roll fans get a little nervous when their favorite music is incorporated into a play.
Instead of being wild and rebellious in the spirit of rock's first wave, most of the first act feels unnecessarily tame. Instead of inspiring restless teenagers and young adults to rise from their seats and dance, the show invites a well-dressed, 60-ish crowd to lean back, tap their feet and smile. Director Tammy Mader's stab at Alan Jones and Rob Bettinson's long-running and occasionally corny Holly tribute eventually works up a decent sweat, but you can't help but wonder why a show blessed with so many jukebox hits on its soundtrack takes so long to get warmed up.
That first act, which retells the Holly legend from his early days in Lubbock, Texas to his rise up the pop charts in New York keeps Holly's rollicking music at a curious and unhelpful emotional distance from the audience. When Justin Berkobien (Holly), Jim Barclay (drummer Jerry Allison) and Cody Siragusa (bass player Joe B. Mauldin) perform boppers like "Rock Around With Ollie Vee" and Holly's signature tune "That'll Be the Day," they do it to advance the plot They seem to be playing to the other actors onstage, boxing the music up inside. Whether on director's orders or not, they pass up an opportunity for the crowd to feed off of these songs' intensity. It's like the kind of restraint you'd expect from a garage band after the cops have warned everyone to keep the noise down. Berkobien and company are beyond competent when it comes to hitting Holly's notes, but there isn't as much camaraderie or glee in their performance as compared to the one put on by Josh Solomon and the Empty Pockets when the show played at the Mercury Theater a few years ago. You believe them as a trio of individual professionals, but not as a cohesive unit.
Finally, some energy begins to fill the room once Holly and his all-white band, the Crickets, get out of the recording studio and try to win over a skeptical, if not outwardly hostile, black crowd in Harlem. As Barclay pounds out the Bo Diddley beat to "Not Fade Away," the arrogance that is so integral to any electric rock show finally makes an appearance and carries the production through intermission.
Act Two contains a few cute scenes involving a courtship between Holly and his eventual bride, Maria Elena (Tempe Thomas), but it's mainly a prelude to a grand reenactment of the doomed star's final concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, in February 1959 alongside the Big Bopper (Casey Campbell) and Ritchie Valens (a booty-shaking Tony Sancho). Though the Bopper's "Chantilly Lace" and Valens' "La Bamba" are done with all the Vegas-like professionalism of a typical oldies revue, a confident Berkobien takes on the challenge of interpreting some of Holly's lesser-known cuts ("Heartbeat," "Raining in My Heart") and reminds us that, had he lived, Holly probably would've beaten the Beatles in the transformation of rock and roll from a teenage pastime into an art form. It's all enough to make you wish they'd left Buddy Holly's story alone and just stuck with the songs.
"Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story" plays through Nov. 2 at the Drury Lane Theatre, Water Tower Place. For tickets, call (312)642-2000 or go to Ticketmaster.