photo by Hilary Camilleri
By Jim Carnes
The spirit of Buddy Holly lives—but not, I’m afraid, in Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story, playing through January 2 at the Community Center Theater. The Broadway Sacramento production of the musical about the rockabilly boy from Lubbock, Texas, is a going-through-the-motions piece of theater.
It’s a jukebox musical, merely an excuse to string a bunch of popular songs together. What plot there is serves mainly to set up a tune or provide some bit of information. Rarely does it help develop any of the characters. Buddy came out of Texas, beginning as a country singer who discovered rockabilly, went wild with it and helped create rock ’n’ roll. Then one winter night, he and two other pop musicians of the time, J. P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash.
The musical’s stripped-down staging rightly suggests the low-tech times of the 1950s when Elvis and Buddy and others were transforming popular music, but this traveling set resembles what you might expect to see in a community theater production, not a national touring show. The sound was spotty on opening night as well.
The music is good. It’s Buddy Holly music so of course it’s good. And Todd Meredith, who plays Holly here, gives it his best. Meredith heads a Buddy Holly tribute band, the Rave-Ons, and two other members of that group (Bill Morey and Jeremy Renner) perform as the Crickets here. With the trademark specs and the Fender guitar, Meredith projects the combination of swagger and innocence that made Holly a superstar in the three short years, he recorded and toured. Hits such as “That’ll Be the Day,” “Not Fade Away,” “Peggy Sue,” “Rave On” and “Oh Boy,” among others, were written, recorded and filled the radio airwaves in rapid succession. Holly not only personified “hitmaker,” he defined the standard rock band of two guitars, bass and drums.
“Buddy” is at its best in the second act, the majority of which is that final Clear Lake, Iowa, concert in which Holly, Valens (Danny Caraballo) and the Big Bopper (Greg Kalafatas) closed the show. It was all about the music and there was some real jamming going on on stage. Many folks walked out of the theater opening night singing “That’ll Be the Day.”
The Buddy Holly story is worth telling. But Buddy—The Buddy Holly Story may not be the vehicle anymore. It premiered in 1989. It’s going on 25 years old—two years older than Holly was when he died in that plane crash that Don McLean christened “the day the music died.”