Often with a show based on a real person’s life, the challenge can be to cram years of events into 120 minutes or so. In the case of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, now onstage at Venice Theatre, that’s not a problem, because the period covered in the meteoric rise of the legendary rocker was a mere 18 months—for many, the archetypal “gone too soon” story of a creative genius.
Nevertheless, another frequent aspect of producing a “life story” holds true here with this show written by Alan Janes: You get the highlights, delivered via some fairly predictable dialogue and clichés. Buddy (Matt McClure) is young, Buddy is talented, Buddy is determined to make his music, his way. Along the road to success he’ll meet with record producers like Norman Petty (Neil Kasanofsky), hit the big time with his Crickets bandmates (Andrew Leach, Joel Broome) and eventually part ways with them, meet the love of his life, Maria Elena (Ariella Corinne Pizarro), help to integrate the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and, oh, yes—make some of rock’s most original, influential and definitive music.
No wonder Buddy sticks to the broad outlines, with a natural arc like that. No time for character shading or back story here; we just move right along from Buddy’s start playing for a Lubbock radio station to his first Nashville recording experience and so on, at a rapid clip.
This musical is a demanding one in many ways, not least of which is that the performers portraying Buddy and his Crickets need to play their own instruments and sing while also acting. Plus there are some fairly large set pieces to move on and offstage (occasionally rumbling their way behind the curtain during a quiet scene in front).
But what audiences will care most about here, whether they were around when Holly burst on the scene in the late 1950s or have just grown up hearing those classic Holly tunes years later, is the songs that give a full example of his talent and the propulsive energy of early rock ‘n’ roll while also making you wonder what he would have done if given more decades on earth. The songs—That’ll Be the Day, Peggy Sue, Maybe Baby, Not Fade Away, It’s So Easy to Fall in Love, Words of Love, Rave On, etc.—are interwoven here into scenes depicting the band in the record studio or in concert, or, in the case of the ballad True Love Ways, in a tender scene between Buddy and Maria Elena, shortly before he leaves on that fateful winter concert tour that ends with a plane crash near Clear Lake, Iowa.
Director Allan Kollar was, for the most part, fortunate in his casting here, starting with McClure, who looks quite a bit like the real Buddy even before he assumes those dark, horn-rimmed glasses. He has the tall, lanky frame of a youngster whose mother (as in a running gag during the show) keeps calling him to make sure he’s eating enough. He’s also able to play the guitar, sing with a Holly-like twang, and make you keep your eyes on him whenever he’s onstage, which is almost all of the time. Pizarro is also effective in her brief scenes as Maria Elena, with whom Buddy falls in love at first sight.
There are also rather surprisingly believable turns by Parker Lawhorne as the Big Bopper and Mark Vincent Mansilungan as Ritchie Valens, Holly’s fellow stars on that last tour. In fact, Valens’ hit La Bamba, performed towards the end of the show, is actually one of the most rousing numbers here.
But there’s plenty of other music to like as well, especially in that Act II culminating concert, accompanied by a horn section. Overlook some of the more wooden stereotypes of the show, and you’ll definitely be applauding—and dancing in your seats—at the end of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, which continues through Jan. 25. Call 488-1115 or go to venicestage.com for tickets.