"Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story" is, as the title redundantly promises, a musical biography of the legendary rock 'n' roll star who, along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, diedin a 1959 plane crash, en route to Moorhead, Minn. A British import, "Buddy" comes to Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre by way of London's West End, where it opened in October.
There is good news and bad news regarding this show. First, the performances are first-rate. Paul Hipp creates a winning portrayal of Holly, and the entire company, under the direction of Rob Bettinson, performs the musical numbers with unbridled energy and enthusiasm. The sets by Andy Walmsley, an amusing collage of gigantic 1950s highway billboards, transport us through time and space with good-humored perfection, and an endless avalanche of rock 'n' roll hits provides the show with a spirited and pleasing score.
The bad news is that the script is a jumble. Not quite a book musical, not quite a concept show, and not in the least innovative, the through-line is muddy, muddled and at times just plain tedious. The author of "Buddy," Alan Janes, seems to have been unable to decide what the style or the focus of the work should be.
In the early scenes, "Buddy" is the story of a musical rebel unwilling to compromise his art. Suddenly we are watching the story of Buddy Holly, champion of civil rights. Finally, in Act 2, when Janes has run out of biography to tell (Holly died at 22, after all), the show is given over to a re-creation of Holly's final concert with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper.
By all reports, Holly's most distinguishing feature is (yawn) that he was one heck of a nice guy. On the other hand, his story is widely regarded as the story of the liberation of youth culture and the triumph of rock 'n' roll. Why bog down a perfectly compelling myth with uneventful biography?
The virtues of "Buddy" are the opportunities it affords to experience a "Buddy Holly" performance and to bask in the spirit of rock 'n' roll. Lacking as that may be in dramatic validity, there is precedent for it -- "Elvis: A Musical Celebration," "Beatlemania," "Rock 'n' Roll! The First 5,000 Years," even "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" offer a variation on the theme. With "Buddy," what we get instead is pretentious clutter.
Some of the problems with "Buddy" stem from its British origin, a genesis through which it inherits a perhaps enviable innocence -- indeed, a simple-minded-ness -- about racial tension in the United States, a feature it shares with the embarrassingly trivial "King: A Musical Testimony" (a biography of Martin Luther King Jr. that also played London's West End this season).
Even if we could accept Buddy Holly as a civil rights hero on the basis of his performance at the Apollo and his marriage to a Hispanic wife, any validity this childlike theme of racial harmony might have is undercut by the casting of non-Hispanic actors as Hispanic characters. Requiring them to speak Spanish on top of this, presumably to establish their ethnicity, only adds injury to insult.
"Buddy" also suffers from a British concept of what will charge an audience into a frenzy of euphoria. When there's a lull in a British musical, a clap-along or a sing-along usually will snap the crowd back to attention. The strategy is not reliable with American crowds, to whom music hall and corner pub sing-alongs are alien and uncomfortable cultural phenomena. The matinee crowd that saw "Buddy" with me did not want to clap along, they did not want to say "Hello, baby!" with the Big Bopper, and they would not be bullied into telling the performers that they were feeling "Fine."
"Buddy" would perhaps have been better off if it had tried only to re-create a concert, or if it had used the man to celebrate the era as Jules Fischer and Patricia Birch did with "Elvis: A Musical Celebration."
After its Toronto engagement at the Royal Alexandra winds up on Sept. 1, "Buddy" transfers to Calgary, then to San Francisco before landing on Broadway on Oct. 28, replacing "A Chorus Line," which recently concluded its record-breaking 15-year run at the Shubert Theater. Fans of "A Chorus Line" can rest assured in the knowledge that the record is safe, at least from "Buddy."