I’m not a fan of musical revues and rather indifferent to the music of Buddy Holly. Musical revues are a dangerous choice to do, as you run the risk of alienating potential audience members who don’t like the music making up the revue. That would be me, as I’m not really all that attracted to the music of Buddy Holly. But, with low expectations, I figured I’d enjoy “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” more than I expected.
Buddy starts with a rebellious leader of a band on a country show who just wants to play rock and roll. After playing a rock and roll song on the air, without permission, he’s fired, but also set up with a recording contract. And so begins the career of the legendary Buddy Holly.
Unfortunately, I did not enjoy “Buddy” more than I expected to enjoy it. The trouble, however, is not Circa’s production. It’s the show itself. “Buddy” is heavy on the performance of Buddy Holly’s songs and light on the story of his life. I went in knowing very little about Mr. Holly and came out knowing more about his life, but not because of the show. Everything I learned I learned from my companion for the evening, who filled in all the gaps for me at intermission and after the show.
The show is poorly paced. This could be Circa’s fault, but it seems the show offers too much opportunity for poor pacing. The first act is heavy on the recording sessions, with little short scenes depicting an ever increasingly tired band, except for Buddy, working all night. The scenes are broken up by dips to black, which last too long and slow the pacing of the show down. It’s hard to enjoy when you’re sitting in black listening to canned music almost more than you’re watching the actors play out that night of Buddy’s life. This could be fixed with shorter dips to black. Much shorter.
Act 2 starts promisingly in the pacing department, but ends up more of a mess than Act 1. The first part of the act is actual scenes with dialogue and story advancement. We watch as Buddy meets a girl, marries her and then leaves for a tour with her warning him of nightmares she’s having about a fire ball in the sky. Finally! I’m learning something and enjoying the show! Then, it descends into a long string of Buddy Holly songs, with very little in the way of storyline, as the rest of the act plays out in concert style. My companion said he felt “like a groupie on a boring tour.”
The end of Buddy Holly’s life is also problematic. We’re right in the middle of a fun song, with the audience dancing and clapping, when the lights dim, the song stops and a voice announces the deaths of Buddy, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper. A spotlight lights each from the top as their deaths are announced. It could be an emotional, tragic moment, but the crowd is clapping over the front of the voice over, so you miss the first part. Then, when it’s done, the show goes right back into the upbeat, fun song. The audience doesn’t have a chance to let the tragedy sink in, let alone acknowledge it.
One more negative, before I focus on the positives. Much of the cast lacked energy. The approach to scenes with dialogue seemed to be laid back, with a slowness and an energy-less performance. It couldn’ve been that I was watching the second performance of the show’s run, so the actors were still warming up to the show. Still, it brought the energy down. Way down, in fact. That’s where the “boring tour” comes in. I had trouble being excited and having fun because most of the actors on stage seemed to not be having fun. And those who were trying to perform with energy were pulled down by those without energy.
Okay, enough of the negative. The major positive of the show is that the actors perform their own instruments. I prefer live musicians accompanying stage shows to pre-recorded accompaniment. The live music adds to the energy of a show. So, Buddy gets major bonus points for actually having the actors perform on their instruments. And, they do quite well performing and will only get better as the run of the show continues.
Todd Meredith is a likeable Buddy Holly. He has to carry the show, so he’d better be good. Unfortunately, he’s the one who’s trying to perform with energy, but it’s held back by the lack of energy of those around him (other than Tristan Layne Tapscott as Jerry, the drummer, who adds some nice humor to the show). I think Meredith’s performance would be more notable were the energy of the rest of the cast raised so that his could go through the roof.
The standouts, however, are Teddric Alexander Matthews and Aurianna Angelique as the Apollo Singers. They kick off the scene at the Apollo theater with more energy than the rest of the show combined. (Well, the concert ending the show is pretty high energy. But, I’m talking performance more than just the music.) Finally, I was into the show, ready to jump out of my seat. They were exciting and giving their all. I wished, for a moment, we were watching “Apollo: The Apollo Singers Story” just so we could see more of them! These two are above and beyond the rest of the cast in what they offer the audience on stage.
Vaughn Irving also does a fine job as Ritchie Valens. He has high energy and “La Bamba” was one of my favorite numbers.
Linda Boelsche is also worth mentioning. As Vi Petty, she offers a character more than anyone else on stage. She has very nice delivery and, along with Jerry the Drummer, some of the funniest moments on stage.
Once the show hits the final concert of Buddy Holly’s life in the second act, the energy really ramps up, bring the audience to its feet, at a couple of points. (I know, I’m using the word energy a lot. But, energy is the key to making this performance fun. I keep mentioning it because that’s what this show is missing, for the most part.) The actors seem to most enjoy themselves while performing, with all of them on stage singing, dancing and actually playing their instruments. How can you not have energy here?
I, personally, did not enjoy “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” all that much. But, I think that’s due to my expectations. I wanted to learn something about Buddy Holly. The show didn’t offer that. It’s more of a chance to perform his songs than it is the story of his life. For me, it’s too heavy on the songs when I want the story. That’s not to say it’s bad, though, and that you should avoid it. That’s just my opinion based on my personal taste. I think anyone who likes the music of Buddy Holly will have a great time at the show. Just expect to hear more songs than to learn anything about the legendary performer. Study up on his life before the show, if you don’t know about it already, and you may enjoy the performance even more.
“Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” runs through March 22 at Circa 21 Dinner Playhouse in Rock Island.