Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Five Minutes of Heaven
A smart strategy for this season is to open the season with a sure-fire, proven crowd pleaser. That, along with easing mask requirements, may be just the ticket to fill those theater seats. If so, Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story is a perfect choice. It has had great success at History Theatre on four previous runs, most recently in 2015. Seven years is plenty of time passed for those who thoroughly enjoyed the show to revisit those great memories, as well as to bring in new audiences ready to find out what they have been missing.
So, Buddy is back, directed as before by Peluso, and sure enough, many more of History Theatre's seats were filled than when I was last in attendance. Unlike the unknown quantity of the world premiere plays History Theatre tends to offer, the audience seemed to arrive in party spirits, knowing exactly what they were coming to see. Based on the rousing applause following each musical number and the thunderous curtain call, their expectations were met.
Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story is exactly what the title describes: a jukebox musical using Buddy Holly's music to tell the story of the iconic rock and roll star's tragically short life and career. It covers the highlights, starting with Holly's early days heading a scrappy band in Lubbock, Texas, back in 1956, where he rails against the insistence of local promoters that he stick to cowboy-style country songs. Without too great a struggle (at least, not depicted in this show), Holly and his sidemen, who became known as "The Crickets," ricochet from an unsuccessful shot at recording in Nashville to an out of the way studio in New Mexico with a rebellious producer named Norman Petty, in whose hands Buddy Holly and the Crickets struck success.
After touring a few major cities, Holly landed in New York for an unlikely booking at the Apollo Theater, America's premiere venue for Black entertainment in Harlem. This gives the show a change of tone from Holly's rockabilly to soulful rhythm and blues for a few numbers, before veering back to the main event. The second act is taken up with Buddy's lightning-fast romance and marriage, his split from the Crickets, and his legendary February 1959 concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa. I suppose I should issue a "spoiler alert" here, but it is well known that following that concert, Holly, along with fellow performers Richie Valens and J.P. Richardson, known as "The Big Bopper," were killed in an airplane crash during a winter storm, as they headed for the tour's next stop in Moorhead, Minnesota. That tragedy was forever solemnized as "the day the music died" by Don McLean in his 1969 hit song, "American Pie."
The story is so well known among anyone with some passing knowledge of America's pop history, that there is not much for audiences to lean into. What there is, is the music. In a career that lasted less than three years, Buddy Holly recorded an amazing number of songs that have become rock and roll standards, revered for their catchy melodies, simplicity, direct messages, and danceability. We are talking about "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue," "Maybe Baby," "Everyday," "Oh, Boy!," "Heartbeat," "Raining in My Heart," and "Rave On." Toss in "Shout," done by a pair of Apollo headliners, the Big Bopper's signature "Chantilly Lace," and Richie Valens' great "La Bamba, and you have a cavalcade of fifties rock and roll to lift anyone nostalgic for simpler times into a happy place.
One of the production's aces is Nicholas Freeman, returning as Buddy Holly. Freeman has performed in this role at all four previous, and now five History Theatre runs. Being thirteen years younger the first time out, in 2009 Freeman was closer to the real Holly's age (Holly was only 22 when he died), but he retains the voice, energetic moves, and the arrogance of youth sitting in the driver's seat of change, making his performance an absolute success–again!
Fernanda Badeo is lovely and convincing as Buddy's wife, Maria Elena–savvy enough around musicians to hold her own after he sweeps her off her feet. Charles Fraser fares well in several roles, most notably as Norman Petty, the producer/manager whose enthusiastic support launches Buddy and his band mates to stardom.
As Joe Mauldin, bassist for the Crickets, and Jerry Allison, drummer for the Crickets, Matt McIntyre and Adam Gauger are swell musicians and serve well as actors for as long as they are on board with Buddy, but when the dramatic split comes, they don't convey the feelings of dissatisfaction or resentment that lead to them parting ways. What distracts even more is that after Buddy angrily tells them, fine, he can do just as well as a solo act, in the very next scene, there are McIntyre and Gauger again, the big bash at Clear Lake, still backing up Buddy on bass and drums. We are supposed to imagine they are now different musicians, I suppose, because the production couldn't afford to actually hire two more musicians. On top of that, the "Buddy Holly and the Crickets" logo on the bass drum remains in place, even though there no longer are any Crickets playing with Buddy. The effect of those kinds of slips is to underscore a sense of artifice that is the primary weakness of the production.
Or take, for instance, the sequence at the Apollo. The house performers that precede Buddy's first appearance are supposed to be the crème de la crème of urban Black entertainment, but their staging comes across as middling, despite the considerable talents of T. Mychael Rambo and Monica E. Scott. Similarly, Brendan Nelson Finn as the Big Bopper and Fernando Collado as Ritchie Valens lack the pizazz and raw energy that made their performances the stuff of legend. Perhaps, precisely because Buddy Holly's music is so straight forward and Freeman is so at home in the role, the production captures his spirit perfectly well while paying short shrift to the others.
Choreographer Jan Puffer is another five-time Buddy veteran, enlivening the show with frequent dance sequences. The choreography benefits from nine highly enthusiastic "teen dancers," performed by actual teens, who swarm down the aisles to scream for their rock and roll idols and dance up a storm. In other scenes, a smaller ensemble composed of the supporting actors provides backup vocals and dance, to lesser success, one flaw being the distracting presence of Laurie Flanigan Hegge, a fine actor who serves well as Norman Petty's piano thumping wife, Vi, but looks out of place grouped with the younger folks singing and dancing with the younger rock and rollers.
Since music is at the heart of the show, it is fortunate to have a great musical team, with the above-mentioned Matt McIntyre on bass and Adam Gauger on drums, along with Brandon Petron on guitar and music director Gary Rue on keyboard. With its may assets along with some shortcomings, director Peluso keeps things moving along briskly, and there is never a pause in the momentum of Buddy's story.
While it does not rise to the level of a memorable production–design credits are all perfectly adequate, but without distinction–Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story undoubtedly entertains, especially when it unleashes those beloved Buddy Holly songs, prompting youthful memories for a good number of audience members. It is indeed the crowd pleaser that should fill up the seats at History Theatre. Let us hope those folks return the rest of the company's ambitious season.
Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story runs through October 30, 2022, at at History Theatre, 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Tiers 1-3: $48.00 - $65.00; seniors (age 60+) $5.00 discount; under 30 - $40.00; Golden Circle tickets: $70.00, no discounts. For tickets and information, please call 651-292-4323 or visit historytheatre.com.
Book: Alan Janes; Music and Lyrics: Buddy Holly, Norm Petty, Chuck Berry, Paul Jury, Robert Blackwell and John Marascalco, Jerry Allison, Franky Lymon and Morris Levy, J.P. Richardson, Kelly Isley Ronald Isley and Rudolph Isley, Bob Montgomery, Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, Richard Valens, Paul Anka, and Bill Tilghman; Director: Ron Peluso; Music Director: Gary Rue Choreography: Jan Puffer; Scenic Design: Justin Hooper; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Chris Johnson; Sound and Video Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Props Design: Kirby Moore; Intimacy Coach: Eva Gemlo; Technical Director: Gunther Gullickson; Stage Manager: Lee Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Elizabeth M. Desotelle; Assistant Musical Director: Jake Endres.
Cast: Fernanda Badeo (Maria Elena, ensemble), Fernando Collado (Richie Valens, Hayrider, ensemble), Peyton Dixon (British DJ, ensemble), Junie Edwards (teen dancers, ensemble), Jake Endres (Hayrider, ensemble), Brendan Nelson Finn (J.P Richardson, Hayrider, ensemble), Charles Fraser (Hipockets Duncan, Norman Petty, Clear Lake Emcee), Nicholas Freeman (Buddy Holly), Adam Gauger (Jerry Allison), Laurie Flanigan Hegge (Vi Petty, Hayrider, ensemble), Matt McIntyre (Joe Mauldin), Junie Morrow (teen dancer, ensemble), Connor Moss (teen dancer, ensemble), Princess Ann Nelson (teen dancer, ensemble), Andrew Newman (NYC DJ, ensemble), Kendall Olson (teen dancer, ensemble), Dakarai Opoka (teen dancer, ensemble), Brandon Petron (The Fourth Cricket), T. Mychael Rambo (Apollo Emcee, Jack Daw), Frida Ross (teen dancer, ensemble), Lucy Ross (teen dancer, ensemble), Monica E. Scott (Apollo Songstress, ensemble), Emily Rose Skinner (Mary Lou Sokoloff, ensemble), Adeline Winesett (teen dancer/ensemble),