Joe Warren Davis captures the essence of Buddy Holly


December 12, 1991|By J. Wynn Rousuck

They look antediluvian by today's rock music standards: group of nerdy guys with short hair -- probably Brylcreemed -- wearing identical gray-striped sports coats and horn-rimmed sunglasses. They might be preppies in uniform, or heaven forbid, junior bankers.

But, no. They are Buddy Holly and the Crickets, reincarnated in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story," which opened at the Mechanic Theatre last night. But this show isn't merely a blast from the past, or a museum-like tribute to the roots of rock and roll, it's a foot-tapping, stand-up-and-clap-your-hands good time.

Admittedly, the show -- scripted by Alan Janes and directed by Rob Bettinson -- is less than an ideal integration of music and text. Its basic structural element is the clunky device of radio disc jockeys narrating Holly's career and, by the second act, when Holly's career is well under way, this takes on a tedious "and then . . ." quality.

But "Buddy" is more concert than musical biography; its high points are the concerts re-created at the end of each act -- the landmark appearance at Harlem's Apollo Theater, where the Crickets were booked by a promoter who mistakenly thought they were black; and Holly's fateful Feb. 2, 1959, performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, after which he and his co-stars, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, died in a plane crash.

Of course, these concerts wouldn't work without a believable Buddy. And -- though I never saw Holly in person -- Joe Warren Davis seems to have captured the man's hopping, hiccuping, hyper essence. Mr. Davis' strength is that he not only can deliver highly credible renditions of such Holly classics as "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue," he also can act.

In his formative days in Lubbock, Texas, Mr. Davis' Buddy is an ill-at-ease, gawky young man -- but one who nonetheless knows what he wants and is determined to go after it. By the time he's a rock-and-roll sensation wowing middle America in Clear Lake, he's still gawky, but he's gained so much stage presence, he's bantering with the audience, not to mention singing, playing guitar and sliding across the stage on his knees.

One reason Mr. Davis is such fun to watch is that he's obviously having fun himself. That infectious quality characterizes most of his fellow performers including Philip Anthony, who, as Valens, does a winning, trilling, hip-gyrating "La Bamba"; Brian Ruff, who has the Bopper's "Heyyy Bay-bee's" down pat; and a slew of polished musicians and vocalists, several of whom are veterans of the Broadway production.

At the end of "Buddy" -- after Buddy and Ritchie and the Bopper have performed with an onstage band and 11 vocalists in evening dress, after we've applauded them and they've applauded us -- Mr. Davis calls out: "Tell all your friends, man. Buddy Holly's back in town."

No argument here.

"Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story" continues at the Mechanic Theatre through Jan. 5; call (410) 625-1400.

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