If "Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse" is the rock n' roll credo, then Buddy Holly got it a third right. But then Holly was part of the birth of the raucous art form and was foremost an artist, and only a martyr by chance. Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story does tell the story of Holly's brief life but mainly it celebrates the music he created. The concept is a rock n' roll version of a wake, dancing in the aisles, clapping and singing along, while mourning the loss of a talented loved one.
The Lower Ossington Theatre's production of Buddy achieves, against a few daunting odds, the ecstatic release aimed for. The music is great: seminal rock n' roll classics performed with gusto, energy and, crucially, more veracity than jazz hands. This is a jukebox musical, not musical theatre.
Oddly, the name above the title is the least musically exciting. The excitement doesn't kick in until Angelica Thompson, as a no-name Apollo performer/MC functioning as a symbol of rock against racism, exhorts the audience,
Let me hear you say, 'Yeah!' That don't sound like no Harlem, 'Yeah.'
before ripping into a number urging us, and succeeding in getting us, to "Party." Thomas James Finn, as the Big Bopper, is just as shameless, and just as successful at raising the energy level. By the time Nigel Irwin's Buddy Holly hits his stride, the crowd is enthused and ready to rock. Most of the second act is pure music, a recreation of the last show Holly (and the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens) ever gave. Horns are added (who knew that Phil Skala, LOT's secret weapon/jack-of-all-trades, was a mean sax player?), the female performers transform into flirtatious back-up singers, the hits keep coming, and nirvana is achieved.
The moment of the plane crash is a gut punch and surprisingly powerful considering how slack the preceding drama has been. Director Alan Kinsella (Mary Poppins, Hedwig, Hair) manages to move the plot along and add depth to characters that are written as cartoons. Unfortunately a lot of the exposition is, for expediency's sake (we have those great songs to get to!), declamatory, and while the cast struggles valiantly, the subtexts and passion are as fragmented as the necessary blackouts and song truncations.
But it is The Buddy Holly Story not Rent, and there is great joy to be had in watching Kevin Forster bounce across the stage as The Crickets' exuberant then alcoholic bass player; Dan Kosub turn on some matinee-idol charm for "Why Do Fools Fall in Love?" (here, as in life, the drummer is the sex object); Mike Buchanan thrust and wiggle while belting "La Bamba;" and Diana Chrisman switch from earth mother to sex-crazed girl in the back to even a refugee reporter from Mary Poppins next door. Most of the cast play multiple, varied roles, often snippets requiring quick changes. Two of those quick changes involve drag and are played for laughs, fortunately not at the characters' expense. I'm not sure what it means but it is bizarre and wonderful.
Holly himself is written as somewhat of a cipher, given to spouting clichés to reinforce his status as an underdog. Irwin brings conviction but it isn't until he relaxes into the music, unleashes a sly smile that belies the jibes about his lack of sexual appeal, and lets his voice flow instead of strain, that Holly's charisma is evident. Tragically there was a lighting malfunction that left Holly/Irwin in the dark for the final moments of the climactic curtain call number, while the spotlight wandered elsewhere. Or perhaps it was a symbolic technical cue illustrating how Holly's early death turned him from an aspiring game-changer into a footnote who just happened to write and sing some really great songs. Regardless, by then the audience was laughing and cheering and believing in Holly's beautiful corpse.
Buddy - The Buddy Holly Story raves on until Sun, Oct 25 at the Lower Ossington Theatre, 100A Ossington Ave. lowerossingtontheatre.com