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Philadelphia by Tim Dunleavy

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story and
The Island

Buddy
Christopher Sutton
In the three decades since Bernard Havard brought the venerable Walnut Street Theatre back to life, the company has only repeated one show—Oliver!, which they did two seasons ago after a gap of about a quarter century. Now they're doing it again with Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, which I saw at the Walnut just thirteen years ago. They've even brought back leading man Christopher Sutton to play a role which has become his specialty. Sutton is still great, and the show is still a lot of fun. It's just a shame that the book is still terrible.

Starting in 1957, Buddy Holly took the music world by storm with a series of hits that helped define the burgeoning new style called rock and roll. More than half a century later, Holly's music is still remarkable for its energy, grace, and musical invention. He turned out so many great songs (most of which he wrote or co-wrote) in such a short time that it's startling to realize he was only 22 when he was killed in a plane crash in early 1959. (Apparently it's still shocking; when the news of his death is announced in the final moments of Buddy, some people in the opening night audience gasped.)

The music still sounds fresh, and in the Walnut's Buddy it's performed with infectious spirit by a talented cast of singers and actors, many of whom also serve as musicians. (There's no pit orchestra; John Daniels is the onstage musical director.) Eli Zoller and Jason Yachanin are exuberant as members of Buddy's backing band, the Crickets. Scott Greer and Miguel Jarquin-Moreland have great showmanship as The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, fellow singing stars who perished alongside Holly. Danielle Herbert scores as an R&B belter, and Sarah Hund has a prime comic spotlight parodying 1950s pop vocal styles on an amusingly exaggerated version of the National Anthem. (Hund also contributes some lovely violin on Holly's ballad "Raining In My Heart.") Anthony Lawton brings warmth to the role of a supportive disc jockey.

Best of all is Sutton, who once again nails the role of Buddy Holly. He's got the high, hiccuppy vocals plus a good approximation of the jittery, lyrical guitar style that made Holly's music so distinctive. Sutton says his dialogue with a hopeful, rising cadence, and he barrels onto the stage shoulders first; he's so energetic that you know his Buddy won't stop until he makes all his dreams come true. Sutton also has sweet chemistry with Lyn Philistine (his real life wife) as Buddy's wife Maria Elena.

Despite Sutton's winning performance, though, Buddy is a clunky show. Director Casey Hushion's production gets all its spark from its music, not from its unexceptional staging. The book by Alan Janes is a cartoonishly simplified version of Holly's rise to fame. All the clichéd elements you'd expect are here: the manager who's out to rip off our hero, the producers and DJs who don't recognize the hero's genius, the manufactured tension that appears out of nowhere when it's time for the band to break up. Holly's life was so short that the show has been padded with music that's irrelevant to Holly's story (both Hund's anthem and an a cappella "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?", while skillfully done, feel like wastes of time). The repeated appeals for the audience to clap along seem desperate. Worst of all is the ridiculously obvious and unrealistic dialogue ("I think you'll find in time that I'm different from the others," Buddy says in one early scene to one of the many skeptics who try to keep him down). Holly's story is fascinating, but little in the way it's told rings true.

It's hard to love a show that bobbles a good story the way that Buddy does. But if you ignore as much of that dialogue as possible and let Buddy Holly's magical music wash over you, you'll have a good time at the Walnut's Buddy. I sure did.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story runs through July 22, 2012, at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $10 – $95, with premium tickets available for $150, and are available online at www.walnutstreettheatre.org or www.ticketmaster.com, or by phone (800) 982-2787.


The Island
Frank X and U.R.
The Island is one intense theatrical experience. The play, written in the early 1970s by Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona, is set on Robben Island, the notorious South African prison where Nelson Mandela and thousands of other political prisoners served time for violating the apartheid laws. Lantern Theater's production is staged on a raised square set (designed by Nick Embree) with the audience on all four sides, like a boxing ring. But the two men we see here are battling the system, not each other.

John (played by Frank X) and Winston (played by U.R.) sleep on the floor of their cell, a bed-roll their only comfort. When morning comes, they leave their cell and perform hard labor all day, shoveling sand into wheelbarrows, carting it, lifting it, dumping it, and repeating the process ad infinitum. As staged by director Peter DeLaurier, the two actors mime these grueling actions continually for more than ten minutes at the start of the show, just inches away from the audience. As sweat pours off of the actors, it's impossible not to feel deeply for the prisoners' plight.

For a "concert" presented by the prisoners, John has decided that he and Winston will perform the concluding trial scene from Sophocles' Antigone. Winston doesn't understand the purpose, but John patiently explains the political significance of this play about a woman who breaks a law she considers unethical. John must guide him through this difficult work and convince him that the embarrassment of playing a woman is worthwhile. Later, John learns that he will soon be a free man—and Winston, who is serving a life sentence, is the one who must urge John to be strong as he leaves to face an unfamiliar world.

The Island runs less than 90 minutes, and it spends so much time on the Antigone story and the depiction of hard labor that it doesn't take the time to delve deeply into the complexity of the South African political situation (unlike Sizwe Bansi is Dead, a play by the same authors that DeLaurier directed for Lantern three years ago). But you won't feel as if you're missing anything here. The Island is a powerful story, and Frank X and U.R. are marvelous as they chart the subtle changes that these characters go through to make their stand. They let us see into the souls of Winston and John—two downtrodden but noble men who know that they may not be able to beat the apartheid system, but who also know that, through art, they can experience a kind of victory.

The Island runs through June 10, 2012, and is presented by Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia. Ticket prices range from $20 to $36, with discounts available for students and seniors, and may be purchased by calling the Box Office at 215-829-0395, online at www.lanterntheater.org or in person at the box office.


Photos: Mark Garvin


-- Tim Dunleavy



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