If "Buddy, The Buddy Holly Story" were an audio-animatronics exhibit at Disney World, you could praise it for being uncannily lifelike. But considering that it appears to be written and performed by humans, I'm afraid it's not lifelike enough.
"Buddy" is based on the all-too-short life of the Lubbock, Tex. singer, who, in a late '50s career that barely lasted 18 months, created some of the most enduring, galvanizing songs in rock 'n' roll.
Even an old fogey like myself finds "Peggy Sue" and "That'll Be the Day" exciting. It's not nostalgia, because I was not listening to those songs then - while my friends were buying 45s I was saving my pennies to buy original Broadway cast albums. It would be nice to say that in "Buddy" the two worlds, pop music and theater, have met. But they haven't. "Buddy" is by no stretch of the imagination theater. What virtues it has comes from the relentless energy of Holly's music. The lyrics aren't particularly interesting. Nor is the music, but it has great drive.
Beginning in the late '50s, popular music came to be associated with one singer, one group. What mattered was the sound, rather than the lyrics or the music. No other singer has interpreted Holly's music, just as few have done recordings of, say, the Rolling Stone's hits. The performer's personality, the carefully engineered sound often matter more than the actual materials in creating a hit.
That, alas, is why "Buddy" is so mechanical. Holly's songs are not open to a wide variety of interpretations. Unless you recreate the original sound it seems hollow. But even if you do recreate the original sound, on stage it looks hollow. You feel you're watching a very good imitation of Buddy Holly, but at no point do you feel you're seeing a performer working out of his own gut.
To make matters worse, the script, by Alan Janes, is unbelievably primitive. It never goes deeper than an elementary school pageant. Janes does not even have a feeling for period. One of the black characters uses the word "honkie" a decade H. Rap Brown coined it, and someone else talks about "my space" well before that jargon invaded our language. The scenes are as stilted as dusty museum dioramas.
So is the acting. Paul Hipp is fine as long as he's imitating Holly. But when he has to deal with the lifeless script he cannot persuade us he's dynamic enough to have created a totally original musical style. Especially with his thick glasses, he seems like the "golly, gee" boy who helped Mr. Wizard on '50s TV.
Most of the other characters have even less to do, and nobody can breathe life into the cliched writing. As Holly's bride, Maria Elena, Jill Hennessy's accent is supposed to be Hispanic. It's indecipherable. (The one actress who made me think we were watching an actual play was Liliane Stilwell, who plays Maria Elena's aunt.)
The staging is klutzy and unimaginative. The last half hour of the show recreates Holly's last concert, in which he appeared with Richie Valens and The Big Bopper. Here, apart from the gyrations of the stars, the staging is utterly static. What gives the scene interest is the unbelievably high decibel level.
The depressing thing is that the audience responds as if they were watching an actual concert, rather than an imitation. Real, fake - it seems like an event and the crowd is so hungry to be associated with one they go along with it.
Visually the show begins interestingly, with reproductions of '50s advertising. But the designs grow limper. At one point some neon signs descended, and it took me a long time to realize that what might have been a recreation of Plano, Tex., is supposed to be New York.
What is most pathetic is that this tribute to an American folk hero comes from London. It seems to have less to do with an English appreciation of American culture than with English mastery of American merchandising techniques, packaging, marketing our own nostalgia for us.
The premise is flimsy but, oh boy! the premises are jumpin'. You can say, with some kind of technical justice, that "Buddy," the new British musical celebrating the life and particularly the music of that crash-doomed pop-prodigy Buddy Holly which opened at the Shubert Theater last night is little moree than a rock concert set to Broadway. But what a rock concert!
For one thing, in psychic and aural impact, it recalls the days when rock actually took place as much in theater auditoriums, such as New York's Fillmore East, as in the vast and gusty arenas that have transformed rock's soul. And for another it highlights the musical career of a kid so brilliant that he shone a light on generations of rock musicians.
The influence of Holly is still strong, and was so evident in British rock, from the Beatles and the Stones on, that it seems curiously appropriate that this tribute to the all-American Texan rocker with the nerdy look and the nervy style should have originated in London.
The ground covered is much the same as in the fine 1978 movie "The Buddy Holly Story," although in some instances, such as Buddy's whirlwind wooing of his wife, Alan Janes's book for the musical is actually closer to the facts than the docudrama movie.
The musical takes Buddy's story from his earliest days singing country in his birthplace, Lubbock, Texas, rounds off the first act with his debut with his group the Crickets as the first white act at Harlem's Apollo, and ends, yes, of course, on "the day music died," that last concert in Clearwater, Iowa on February 2, 1959, immediately before his chartered plane took off for foggy death and gleaming immortality.
A sort of vestigial reconstruction of that final gig - including the Big Bopper, J.P. Richardson, bouncing through "Chantilly Lace" and Ritchie Valens offering an explosive "La Bamba" - has the Shubert audience either on the edge of its seats, or jigging in the aisles.
The story doesn't matter - after all if we care we know, and if we don't we're not at the Shubert Theater anyway - the rest is only rock 'n' roll, but I like it.
The very talented British director Rob Bettinson and an equally talented British designer Andy Walmsley - who chiefly designs British TV specials - have conspired to make "Buddy" into a nostalgia trip into mid-America's late '50s, largely by use of advertising images, but also catching the concert and TV ethos of the time. The result is style - and the style is marvellously carried over into the performance and performers.
It's a terrific company, with a wildly gyrating David Mucci as the Big Bopper and a dynamic Philip Anthony as Ritchie Valens absolutely outstanding.
But "Buddy" has got to be Buddy, and Buddy is Paul Hipp. The guy is prodigiously talented. Like Gary Busey in the movie, Hipp sings his own live way, in some kind of modified impression of the Holly style. And he is unquestionably terrific.
I am not saying that had their chronologies and histories been somehow reversed we would now have Buddy Holly offering us the Paul Hipp story, but in all conscience the tight-wired, gangling Hipp, with the right voice ranging from lemon juice to sugar, gives, as, in fairness, did Busey in the movie, a memorable performance.
At the end - with the audience elevated to joyful chaos - an exultant Hipp comes on and says: "Tell your friends, Buddy Holly LIVES!"
Not quite. The show lives. The legend lives. But Buddy lies in a misty place of genius uncharted, talent unresolved.
Would he have been a John Lennon, had Lennon lived, or a Paul Anka? Who knows? Who need care?
Certainly no one sampling the authentic Holly magic now being unexpectedly re-spun at the Shubert.
"Let's rock and roll!" is the inevitable battle cry of the sainted hero of "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story." And who would go anywhere near the new musical at the Shubert for any reason other than rock-and-roll? The nostalgia-seeking audience at "Buddy" knows what it wants -- golden oldies pounded out the way they used to be -- and the people who have concocted this entertainment know how to give it to them. In its final 40 minutes or so, "Buddy" unveils a torrential simulation of a hard-driving yet senior-prom-sweet rock concert of the 1950's in which Buddy (Paul Hipp), the Big Bopper (David Mucci), Ritchie Valens (Philip Anthony), a hyperkinetic band and a fervent choir of backup singers turn back the clock by blasting out "Chantilly Lace," "Maybe Baby," "Peggy Sue Got Married," "La Bamba" and more.
For those who remember the 50's -- and I do, just -- this self-contained concert is bound to touch a nerve. The director, Rob Bettinson, and his designers have gotten the details right, from the typography of the fliers passed out by the ushers to the acres of low-cut satin draped around the bouncing girl singers. While no one will confuse the stand-in rock icons for their prototypes, Mr. Hipp and his colleagues do have a youthful enthusiasm, a raw rock-and-roll talent and an obvious affection for the music that help diminish the ghoulish aura of necrophilia that has given Elvis impersonations a bad name.
Not that death escapes the scene: the concert being re-created -- a Winter Dance Party at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 2, 1959 -- is the tragic one of rock-and-roll lore. Hours later, Buddy Holly, 22 years old and only 18 months a rock phenomenon, would be killed along with his companions in a plane crash while trying to fly through a snowstorm to the next stop on their tour. Though "Buddy" eventually fills in the details of that calamity, even then it finds a way to keep its now levitated audience from crashing down at the curtain call. Broadway being Broadway, the music is not allowed to die with the leading man.
It is too bad that the beginning of "Buddy" is not nearly so happy as the ending. To get to the simulated concert, one must slog through two hours of simulated musical comedy much the way contemporary rock audiences must endure interminable warm-up acts before the headliner arrives. Not content to give its customers the 1950's equivalent to "Beatlemania" that they came for, the creators of "Buddy" pad the evening with a superficial, extremely talky biographical drama that makes the puffy 1940's Hollywood biographies of Tin Pan Alley composers look like "Citizen Kane."
The evening's author, Alan Janes, seems to be trying to emulate two other works: Michael Bennett's brilliant, fictionalized musical about the Supremes, "Dreamgirls," and the film "The Buddy Holly Story," which made a deserved star of Gary Busey in 1978. A few of Bennett's theatrical devices are crudely reprised here -- notably when Holly is in the Apollo Theater's wings or is heading up the Billboard charts -- and the narrative structure is often the same as that of the Busey picture's pedestrian screenplay. But Mr. Janes seems incapable of writing a scene that is dramatic or funny or revealing of character, and he lacks the technical skill to integrate the songs into such scenes as he does write. The result is a series of primitive, predictable vignettes -- Buddy revolts against country music, Buddy wears his glasses on stage, Buddy gets married, etc. -- in which the actors announce events rather than inhabit them, like the androids in a Disney World pageant.
To keep the audience from mounting an insurrection, the first act and a half of "Buddy" is punctuated by a few songs and a lot of tantalizing song fragments; just before intermission there is a brief preliminary concert occasioned by Holly's famous accidental booking among black acts at the Apollo. But the bad acting and cliched dialogue -- Buddy is forever vowing to play his music " my way" -- are wearying and finally laughable. By the time the fateful plane ride is being telegraphed in lines exclaimed by both Valens ("I got to get on that plane tonight!") and the Big Bopper ("Thanks for saving me a seat on that plane!"), "Buddy" has aroused as much nostalgia for Carol Burnett's satirical sketches as it has for vintage rock-and-roll.
It seems unconscionable for this show to rave on for nearly three hours without trying to reveal, however speculatively, the soul of the man behind the songs of joyous true love. Mr. Janes is content to portray Holly instead as a perfectly normal American boy who was a "stubborn son of a gun" about his music and, despite his conventional West Texas upbringing, something of a visionary about racial tolerance. Surely there is more than that to the tale of this enduring pop artist. There is also more to the story of how rock-and-roll transformed American culture and society in the 1950's, but such history seems lost on Mr. Janes, an Englishman who first wrote this show for the West End. The new teen-age America that was being parodied on Broadway as long ago as "Bye Bye Birdie," a year after Holly's death, is presented in deadly earnest here, and the Populuxe period billboards of Andy Walmsley's slick set seem infinitely more knowing than the show they decorate.
Aside from Holly's songs, the production's strongest asset is Mr. Hipp, an American performer who originated his role in London. An occasional raspiness notwithstanding, he does everything that is asked, vocal hiccups and yodels included, to capture the vocal manner and shy, gangly persona of the script's Buddy. But there is enough of an edge to his personality, especially as he breaks into the sexual gymnastics of the final concert, to suggest that he, like Gary Busey, could eventually rise to meet a more demanding acting challenge. That'll be the day for Mr. Hipp. In the meantime, "Buddy" is for him and the audience alike as much countdown as blastoff.