Musical keeps Buddy Holly's star burning bright as always

Review: Re-creating the days before and after the music died, `The Buddy Holly Story' has both rousing musical numbers and poignant remembrances.

May 11, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"Tell your friends to come on down because Buddy Holly is back in town," lead actor Van Zeiler says after playing an encore in "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story."

It's been almost nine years since this British-born musical about the seminal American rock and roller played Baltimore. In the interim, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative Buddy Holly stamp, and more than a half dozen Web sites have sprung up.

Holly's star hasn't waned and, as the polished production at the Lyric Opera House proves, neither has the musical based on his life. Granted, the show, written by Alan Janes, was never a major imaginative work on the order of, say, "Dreamgirls," the thinly veiled musical biography of the Supremes.

Loosely narrated by a disc jockey from Holly's hometown of Lubbock, Texas, "Buddy" is largely a celebration of Holly's music, culminating in a concert scene at the end of each act.

Act 1 ends in 1957 at Harlem's Apollo Theatre, where Holly and his group, the Crickets, were booked under the mistaken impression that they were black. Not only do they win over the incredulous crowd, but by the end of the set, the black performers and even the scoffing emcee have joined them on stage in a rafter-raising rendition of "Oh Boy!"

Act 2 takes place in blizzard-stricken Clear Lake, Iowa, less than two years later, at the fateful concert after which 20-year-old Holly and fellow performers Ritchie Valens and J. P. Richardson (the "Big Bopper") were killed in a plane crash, a tragedy commemorated by singer/songwriter Don McLean as "the day the music died."

Zeiler, who also portrayed Holly in the long-running production on London's West End, is a strong vocalist who brings a definite Holly flavor, right down to the trademark gulps, to such standards as "That'll Be the Day" and "Peggy Sue." He also effectively conveys the impulsive nature of the young star, who proposed to his wife (sweetly played by Victoria Stilwell) five hours after they met and who severed his connection with the Crickets (played with youthful exuberance and strong musicianship by Steve Friday and J. D. Stelljes) shortly thereafter.

Most of the supporting roles are thinly drawn, including those of record producer and manager Norman Petty (David Sinkus) and his pianist wife (Angela Howell) and a few are downright caricatures, such as Lubbock deejay Hipockets Duncan (Christopher Bloch). But most of the cast members do double duty as singers and/or instrumentalists, and their versatile talents serve the material well.

Vocally, particular mention should be made of Tamula Browning, who brought the house down on opening night as the Apollo singer on stage immediately before the Crickets.

Except for some slight differences in the lineup of songs, this production -- which originated at the Ordway Music Theatre in St. Paul, Minn., and is directed by Paul Mills -- bears many similarities to the version that played the Mechanic Theatre in 1991. It's a solid rendition of a musical that is essentially a tribute, not an insightful look into the character of one of rock's more influential musicians.

Yet even though the concert scenes are the show's most rousing elements, "Buddy" is not without poignancy. When Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper reappear on stage after the announcement of their deaths, it is as if the audience has willed them back to life. And in a way, that's what this show is all about.

`Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story'

Where: Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave.

When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 7: 30 p.m. Sunday, matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Tickets: $15-$49

Call: 410-481-7328

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