Like many stubborn, relentless geniuses before and after him, Buddy Holly wasn't afraid to do something different and never gave up until the world came with him.|
Over a terrifically entertaining 2 hours and 45 minutes, we're treated to a "greatest hits" version of everything that made the pioneering 50s rock icon so special in Circa '21's new production of "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story."
Six years after the dinner playhouse first presented the global-smash musical celebration, we've got the fantastic Dalen Gunn now in the title role. The New York-based 27-year-old -- who has played Buddy in two prior runs in Spokane, Wash. -- has a magnetic, authoritative stage presence and uncanny vocal similarity to Holly. Gunn really makes you feel the musician's urgency and drive to succeed.
A native of Lubbock, Texas, home of country music, a 19-year-old Buddy Holly didn't want to play it safe with country, feeling the pull of Elvis and the roiling vortex of rock and blues. The Lubbock DJ "Hipockets" (the always dependable, amusing Tom Walljasper) warns him that sponsors don't want rock, and the record label Decca wants Buddy to stick with conservative country.
Even after Buddy performs his soon-to-be-hit "That'll Be The Day," the Decca producer proclaims he's a no-talent who can't sing or play. Apparently, he can't see the future like visionaries such as Buddy do. With new producer Norman Petty in New Mexico (like Buddy, a perfectionist), Holly shoots to stardom in 1957.
We get to see the genesis of "Everyday," co-written by Mr. Petty, in which his wife, Vi, plays the celeste (a keyboard instrument with a glockenspiel-like tone that happens to be sitting around the studio). It's beautiful and perfect, like a child's snow globe.
We also learn that Buddy's drummer Jerry Allison asked him to change the name of his song "Cindy Lue" (originally named after Holly's niece) to "Peggy Sue," Jerry's girlfriend. The rest is history, and the two got married, as evidenced in the later "Peggy Sue Got Married." Tristan Tapscott, as Jerry, John Hays as bassist Joe Mauldin, and A.J. Haut (as an unnamed guitarist) are solid as the Crickets.
In the boys' New York City debut, we get the soulful, high-energy duo of Kiarri Andrews and Nina Waters as opening singers at Harlem's famed Apollo Theater. In "Shout," they bring style, swagger, and flamboyant exuberance. The two African-American performers also gleefully make fun of the very white young men, predicting they'll flop in front of the black audience.
Ms. Waters and Mr. Andrews end up getting into the driving, insistent beat of "Peggy Sue," the irresistible "Words of Love," and rollicking, uptempo "Oh Boy."
Most of the second act takes place on the fateful night of Feb. 2, 1959, at Buddy's final concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, as part of the disorganized "Winter Dance Party" tour through the Midwest (which stopped at Davenport's Capitol Theater). First we see how Buddy falls in love with an adoring fan, Maria Elena, a receptionist in New York, proposes to her within five hours, and writes her the lovely, sweet "True Love Ways."
Before the last tour, the band inexplicably breaks up, but for some reason the show stages the triumphal concert at the Surf Ballroom with the same band members backing Buddy.
After a dazzling a cappella version of "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," James Fairchild reprises his role as J.P. ("The Big Bopper") Richardson, with his big hit, "Chantilly Lace," and he has a great call and response with the audience. I really like the addition of three brass players in the band backing Buddy.
Collin O'Connor as the 17-year-old Ritchie Valens tears the roof off Circa, with the company, on a fiery, passionate, fun version of "La Bamba." Mr. Gunn appropriately mellows things out with the gorgeous piano-driven ballad "Raining in My Heart." He livens up the pace with the boisterous, joyous "It Doesn't Matter Any More," and "Rave On," given a feverish climax with his pals, Valens and the Big Bopper.
The song ends abruptly with the dark news we've expected (the beginning of Don McLean's immortal "American Pie" starts the show), that these three were killed in a small plane crash after the show in a snowstorm, as they were headed to the next gig in Fargo, N.D. But not to end on a completely sour note, we're brought right back to the concert and a feel-good, carefree "Johnny B. Goode."
Circa '21 last produced this hit musical in January 2008, also directed by Ann Nieman, a longtime veteran of the Rock Island venue. Other members of the cast making return appearances on the Circa stage include Mr. Andrews, Mr. Haut, Jody Alan Lee, Jennifer Poarch, Ryan Edward Wise, as well as Mr. Walljasper and Mr. Tapscott, both of whom also performed in 2008's "Buddy."
Luckily, the music lives on, with all its youth and potency intact.
If you go
-- What: "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story"
-- When: Through March 8; Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday evenings at 7:45 p.m., Sundays at 5:45 p.m., and Wednesday matinees at 1:30 p.m.
-- Where: Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse, 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island.
-- Tickets: $49.12 for the evening dinner-and-show productions and $43.37 for the plated-lunch matinees, and reduced prices for students and groups of 12 or more are also available for all performances, at the box office, Circa21.com or 309-786-7733, ext. 2.
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