Buddy...The Buddy Holly Story is basically a concert attached to a flimsy afterthought of a plot. Buddy Holly was one of the pioneers of rock and roll, and a huge influence on the musicians who followed him. He rose from obscurity as a country singer in Texas and then created a series of hits over eighteen months. After giving a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, he was en route to his next engagement when the small plane he'd chartered went down in a snowy field. Everyone aboard was killed: the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens, as well as Holly and the pilot. The year was 1959, and Holly was just 23.
From where we sit, it's hard to understand just how potent the effect of music like Holly's was on the plastic-coated, repressed and asexual America of the 1950s. Rock and roll was like a hissing viper tossed onto a shag-carpeted floor, a flame licking at the rotten foundations of a glossily painted house. The drama that's limply played out in Buddy was playing out for real in schools and living rooms all over the country, and newspapers were full of stories about worried teachers and parents, and teenagers gleefully submitting to their own basest and most atavistic impulses. Today rock is old and safe and worth big money, and songs that once challenged us to re-experience and re-imagine our entire world have devolved into advertising jingles. At the Arvada Center, the most conventional old codgers imaginable happily let themselves go, clapping and swaying and singing along to "That'll Be the Day."
I love Buddy Holly's music, and this production sort of does it justice. At least the musicianship on stage is of the highest caliber. The singers are good, and almost everyone in the cast plays an instrument. Again and again, they re-create, almost to the second, those irresistible rhythms and arrangements we remember so well. Each act ends with Holly in concert: the first with Holly and the Crickets performing at the Apollo Theatre in New York, where they've been booked on the incorrect assumption that they're a black group but manage to win over the crowd (that's us!) almost immediately; the second with the final gathering at Clear Lake, Iowa.
Buddy...The Buddy Holly Story
Presented by the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities through August 3, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, 720-898-7200, www.arvadacenter.org.
But the acting throughout is as lame and presentational as the playing is skilled, which doubly underlines the vapidity of the script. There's also quite a lot of audience manipulation; by the time the emcee at Clear Lake was done asking us where we were from and leading us in claps and chants, I was ready to scream. And while Bennett Dunn brings serious musical talent to the role of Holly, he's just too damn cute. I don't mean handsome (which he is) and not at all geeky (which Buddy Holly was), but a smiling, ingratiating, anxious-to-please kind of cute that undercuts rebelliousness. James Agee once remarked that "the deadliest blow the enemy of the human soul can strike is to do fury honor," and though he was thinking of issues loftier than rock and roll, the insight still applies.
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This production feels safe, plastic, constricted — very much like the decade the rockers worked so hard to tear apart.