Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Seattle

Buddy a Joyous Rockin' Romp at the 5th Avenue Theatre

Also see David's review of Act a Lady

Kelly Van Camp, Brandon O'Neill and Billy Joe Huels
A late in the game replacement for the postponed pre-Broadway musical Cry Baby, Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story is an unabashed crowd-pleaser. Directed with his usual sure hand by David Bennett, the show which originally took London and Broadway by storm is probably the original jukebox musical, a genre that has subsequently spawned more disappointments than hits. But the exceptional efforts of director Bennett, choreographer Kathryn Van Meter, conductor/musical director Richard Gray, and a slam bang cast and orchestra make certain that this show succeeds in its mission to entertain, and they succeed unequivocally.

Dramatically, the book of Buddy by Alan Janes and Rob Bettinson is functional at best, but certainly unobjectionable as it charts the instant rise and untimely demise of Lubbock, Texas singer/musician Buddy Holly (for a more dramatic take, rent the Gary Busey film biopic). Director Bennett gambled and won in casting a musician over an actor as Holly. Making his theatrical debut, trumpeter, guitarist, singer/songwriter Billy Joe Huels, who fronts the Dusty 45's band, makes a warm, unpretentious Holly and satisfyingly recreates such Holly hits as "That'll Be the Day," "Peggy Sue", "True Love Ways" and more, backed up (as Holly's band the Crickets) by solid musicians Matt Weiner and Mike Daugherty. Though she doesn't show up in the show's plotline until the top of act two, Jennifer Paz is winsome and spirited as Holly's love at first sight lady, Maria Elena Holly. Happily, the real Maria Elena Holly was in town opening night to give her thumbs up and rock out with the cast in the curtain call. Staunch support is served up by Peter Crook as Holly's loyal first producer Norman Petty, Angie Louise in a wry, well observed (and rare non-singing) performance as Norman's wife Vi Petty, who played piano on Holly's early recordings.

It's no spoiler to say that Holly died in a tragic plane crash in 1959, as he was on a solo tour with other notable performers, including Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, "The Big Bopper." Their final concert is the climax of act two, spotlighting the high octane talents of Kelly Van Camp (also of the Dusty 45's) singing "Chantilly Lace" as Richardson, and Brandon O'Neill, sizzling on Valens' trademark "La Bamba."  The moment when the lights abruptly shift from the concert to the aftermath of the plane crash being announced over the same radio waves that carried Holly's tunes is quite chilling.

A host of Seattle's finest talents are employed in bit roles and as onstage musicians in Buddy, with Lisa Estridge, Chad Jennings and Richard Gray especially notable. James Wolk's set and projections designed by Lara Kaminsky and Martin Christoffel convey the varied settings with dexterity. Tom Sturge's lighting design is sleek and effective, and Melanie Taylor Burgess' costumes never struck a false note.

With Buddy, the 5th Avenue has a show that can take older theatergoers back to their rock and roll adolescence, yet appeal to younger audience members who, decades later, rediscover the enduring charms of Holly's music.

Buddy runs through March 4 at the 5th Avenue Theatre 1308 5th Avenue in downtown Seattle. Visit the 5th Avenue's web-site at for further details.

Photo: Chris Bennion

- David-Edward Hughes

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