Buddy Holly Shticks It to Grandmas
At least half a dozen of them, the Red Hat Ladies, spring out of their seats in their screaming purple dresses and flying saucer-sized red hats, stomping and clapping to Buddy Holly singing “Johnny B. Goode.” When the bespectacled singer shifts into the finale, “Oh, Boy!” nearly the entire audience rises to its feet dancing and clapping.
Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s production of “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” ends with a bang, but it sputters along the way.
After a live performance of Buddy Holly & the Crickets is broadcast on radio station KDAV in the band’s hometown of Lubbock, Texas, in 1956, Buddy Holly (Rob Lawhon) receives a recording contract with Decca Records in Nashville. During the recording session there, the record producer tries to twist Holly’s pumping rockabilly sound into languid country tunes. Holly chucks the contract and travels with the band to a studio in New Mexico where he records his music his way.
The record goes gold. The band travels around the country and becomes the first white band to play Harlem’s Apollo Theatre. Holly leaves the band, moves to New York, falls in love at first sight, marries and plays gigs around the country.
That about sums up the entire show. If it sounds light on plot, it is.
Unlike the movie, which pulls you into Holly’s life and gnaws at your emotions, the play, as performed by GET, does neither. More than a story, this is a showcase of about 20 Buddy Holly tunes. There are moments when Lawhon is a believable Holly. But too often, he and most of the cast overact and talk at, rather than to, one another.
One exception is actor Tim Batten, who plays New Mexico record producer Norman Petty and a backup singer at Holly’s final gig in Clear Lake, Iowa. Batten consistently performs truthfully as if the scenes and his characters are real.
But a sense of reality, in general, is missing from the show. Instead of relying on a strong script and credible acting to engage the audience, this production relies on shtick as side performers run among the audience pulling granny-aged women out of their seats to dance.
In addition to the three-piece Buddy Holly & the Crickets band, the show features other musicians who perform throughout the show.
One of the best musical scenes is Holly’s final concert, which features separate acts: J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson (Dolph Amick) and Richie Valens (Ricardo Aponte).
In “Chantilly Lace,” Amick incarnates The Big Bopper while talking to his sweetie on the phone. In typical Bopper fashion, Amick opens his eyes wide, smiles slyly and trills his words (a la the talking horse Mr. Ed), “You know-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh what I like.”
The theatrical musical and dance standout is Valens, who darts about the stage as the band plays “La Bamba.” Wearing tight black straight legs, a black shirt with a wide band of gold down the front and a matching bolero, Valens bounces around the stage, swinging his hips salsa style, banging on the bongos as he sings. His passion brings life and electricity to this show.
If there are any flaws in this production, the Red Hat Ladies don’t seem to notice. Apparently, neither do a lot of people. This is the second consecutive year GET has staged this production.
Now in its 20th year, “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” is “the world’s most successful rock and roll musical” and has been “viewed by more than 20 million people,” according to the official Buddy Holly Story website. There, the synopsis talks about scenes that are not shown in the GET production. If those scenes had been shown, perhaps the story would have had more substance.
“Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” runs through June 6 at the 14th Street Playhouse.