I confess a fondness for the 1978 film, “The Buddy Holly Story,” about Charles Hardin Holly, the gifted rock and roller from Lubbock, Texas who died in a plane crash at age 22, outlived by his influential trove of music. Any movie with songs like “Peggy Sue,” “Oh Boy” and “Everyday” has a lot going for it, to say nothing of Gary Busey’s dynamic performance in the title role.
But Sir Paul McCartney, who owned the copyrights to Holly’s music, thought the film was inaccurate, and in 1985 he produced his own documentary, “The Real Buddy Holly Story,” to set the record straight. McCartney went on to support the jukebox musical, “Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story,” which opened in London’s West End in 1989. Written by Alan Janes, it is that somewhat deracinated version of the tale that has now come to the Cadillac Palace Theatre courtesy of Broadway in Chicago.
With songs this good — in addition to Holly’s outpouring, the audience is treated to Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode,” the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and “Why Do Fools Fall in Love,” written for Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers — the success of the musical should be a sure thing. The performers have terrific voices and many play instruments well enough to impersonate the band members they represent.
But musical theater is just as much about theater as it is about music, and in the case of “Buddy,” a weak story, phlegmatically told, is not enough to hold things together. Things come alive only at the end of the two-and-a-half-hour show, when the story becomes the music. The occasion is a concert in Clear Lake, Iowa during which three one-of-a-kind performers jammed just hours before they were to board that fatal flight.
Alternating in the role of Holly (and of Tommy Allsup) are Andy Christopher and Kurt Jenkins. Christopher’s voice is superb — more melodic than Holly’s, in fact, although that takes away some of the quirky charm. The program notes that Christopher learned to play guitar while working in Lubbock and that he was tutored by Holly’s nephew, and yet that local color seems washed away in this production.
Joining Christopher/Jenkins in the finale are Ryan G. Dunkin as J.P. Richardson (aka The Big Bopper), who croons “Chantilly Lace,” and Ryan Jagru, doing a turn as Ritchie Valens gyrating to “La Bamba.” Dunkin and Jagru are both terrific and bring much-needed life to the production. That makes the well-orchestrated announcement of the plane crash all the more poignant, as the ages of the dead are revealed, with The Big Bopper the senior performer at age 28 and Valens only 17.
Until that finale, the liveliest moment on stage comes when Lacretta Nicole, an outsize vision in sequins, belts out “Shout” as a performer at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem. The ensemble members acquit themselves nicely in multiple roles. Noellia Hernandez makes the best of the ill-defined role of Maria Elena Holly, the secretary at a New York City music publisher whom Holly decides to marry within moments of meeting.
“Buddy” is directed and choreographed by Norb Joerder. Part of the problem with the production may lie in the harsh amplification of the dialog. Words as unsubtle as these need not be earsplitting too. One further issue is that some of the best songs are played as recorded snatches, a shame given that the score is solid gold.
Buddy — The Buddy Holly Story
Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph, Chicago
Through June 30, 2013
Tickets $22–$85; (800) 775-2000; Ticketmaster retail locations; and www.BroadwayInChicago.com