Tuesday, September 28, 2010

*Buddy* review

Rock ‘n’ roll’s Father, Son and Holy Ghost

(at Spokane Civic Theatre through Oct. 24)

He didn’t want any plucking restraint. He wanted thrashing passion.
Buddy Holly aimed to turn sedate country music into ravenous rock ‘n’ roll.

And on the strength of Yvonne Johnson’s audience-participating directing style and Brian Gunn’s likable performance in the title role, the Civic’s Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story turns jukebox nostalgia into a rousing of the rock ‘n’ roll rabble.
As Buddy, Gunn is even more than a singing-dancing-acting triple-threat: He quintuples his impact by shredding his Strat and looking good in horn-rims, too. Gunn’s acting rings the changes from nervous kid to defiant artist, from gentle balladeer to rockin’ rebel. “Rave on and tell me/ Not to be lonely," he sings toward the end. "Tell me you love me only/ Rave on to me.”

Johnson and co-music directors Jim Ryan and Michael Saccomanno succeed in showing Buddy’s development as a musician, the build-up to all his raving on. When the Crickets are still playing roller rinks — and in their initial recording sessions — they sound tentative and rough. By the time they’re recording “Everyday” and signing contracts, though, they’re rocketing up the charts.

Along the way, however, the intra-band squabbles and fights with producers lacked conviction. And during the first half of opening night, unfortunately, the sound balance was off, with Gunn’s guitar amped too high and his mic turned too low. As a result, the wonder of being in on the recording of “That’ll Be the Day” and the surprising-the-black-folks impact of “Peggy Sue” at the Apollo was lessened.
But the balance got restored after intermission. And while Act Two contains too much clunky exposition, the payoff is exciting. Johnson sends bobby-soxers screaming down the aisles and distributing programs in a you-are-there simulation of Buddy’s final concert.

David Baker’s designs, remarkably, provide a dozen different settings, with the lived-in grime of a New Mexico recording studio particularly impressive.
Casandra Marie Hayes is engaging as Buddy’s wife Maria Elena, but isn’t given much to do — she’s even cut out of the couple’s final phone call.
As performers at the Apollo, David Allen McElroy and Keyonna Knight create an urban vibe with sassy dance moves. Knight is also one of the five dancers who, along with nine musicians, stoke the final concert’s fire. Choreographers Troy Nickerson and Jillian Wylie have ordered up finger-snaps and preacher poses, crossed arms and Watusi wiggles.

On opening night, vintage cars were on display and and root beer floats were served out in the parking lot, adding to the party atmosphere. And Johnson's direction adds verisimilitude by having bobby-soxers scream down the aisles and handing out programs to the Feb. 2, 1959 concert that would have a tragic aftermath.

On that frigid Iowa night in ‘59, Jhon Goodwin — joshing and flirting as the Big Bopper — exudes confident stage presence. As Ritchie Valens, Paul Villabrille got laughs for his pelvic thrusts but earned approving whoops for how he tore into “La Bamba.”
It’s unexpectedly moving to watch Buddy and the Bopper join in on that song with Valens when you know it’s their last night on earth.
The report of their deaths, when it arrives, is sudden. But it’s handled without schmaltz, and soon the encores and curtain calls restore a rousing sense of being in at the birth of rock ‘n’ roll.
Buddy Holly stood for genre-bustin’ creativity and youthful rebellion, and Johnson’s production conveys the joy and sadness of his meteoric two years of fame. The Day the Music Died, we all lost.

At the final concert, Buddy sings, “Oh boy, when you're with me/ Oh boy, the world can see/ That you were meant for me.”
Buddy Holly’s music was meant for all of us, and Johnson’s production celebrates it. Rave on.

Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story • Thurs-Sat at 7:30 pm; Sun at 2 pm; through Oct. 24 • Tickets: $28 (top); $10, student rush • Spokane Civic Theatre • 1020 N. Howard St. • Visit: spokanecivictheatre.com • Call: 325-2507

A condensed version of this review will appear on Thursday, Sept. 30, in The Pacific Northwest Inlander.

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