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'Buddy' can't conquer cliches

THEATER REVIEW: "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story" at Cadillac Palace Theatre ★★

Chris Jones

8:11 AM CDT, June 20, 2013

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Since "Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story" dates all the way to 1989, long before "Motown" or "Jersey Boys" or "Memphis" or "Million Dollar Quartet" or, perish the Broadway memory, "Baby It's You!" it hardly seems fair to complain about the hackneyed way in which it tells the story of the late, great rock star with the thick glasses.

In many ways, Alan Janes' "Buddy" (which ran in London's West End for more than 15 years and continues to make a pretty penny around the globe) looks so tired now because so many shows have copied its tropes.

Let's see. You've got the grumbly disc jockeys refusing to take a risk on a new kind of music and yet finding time to narrate what's transpiring from their little, elevated, on-stage booths with the "On the Air" signs.

You've got the opening scene with some tired, unsexy act about to be eclipsed by the hero's new sound.

You've got the closed-minded record executives, the brilliant, maverick producer, the squabbling among the boys, the how-dare-you-play-the-devil's-music-on-my-station declarations, the wife who spoils the party, the little clutch of young girls hanging around the wings at once shocked by rock 'n' roll and hungry for its pleasures (these shows always need both at once). These devices are all such cliches now.

Watching the current touring production of "Buddy" at the Cadillac Palace Theatre on Wednesday night (a low-tier Equity production created by the Atlanta-based Theater of the Stars), I kept thinking how much Buddy Holly deserves a new, fresher musical.

He was, after all, the proto-rock 'n' roll nerd. Given the way beanpole gents in glasses have been so vindicated in the sexual and professional arenas, it feels only fair for Holly to get a show that actually considers his role as an early adopter who prepared the way.

At least this one has kept his music alive. For some, that will be enough, especially since Andy Christopher is an engaging presence and a decent singer in the leading role.

Christopher had the crowd on its feet by the end Wednesday night, as is usually the case with a show that is far better in the last 20 minutes than at any other point in the evening.

Janes was smart enough to end his show with a concert-style sequence based on the last concert Holly played before his plane crashed in Iowa in 1959, also killing his pals Ritchie Valens (a 17-year-old whose career literally had been measured in months) and J.P. Richardson, otherwise known as The Big Bopper. Ryan Jagru and Ryan G. Dunkin, who play those two other great performers in this show, do their memory credit.

If there's one line in "Buddy" that always gets a gasp from the audience, it's the reminder that Holly was killed when he was 22 years old. People know he died young. People forget, though, just how young.

I've seen a number of productions of "Buddy" over the years, and the best ones try to find some truth in a script that does not make that quest so easy.

This production, directed routinely by Norb Joerder, tends not to struggle hard there, preferring to rely on the easier signposts. I got a particular kick out of the way the show signaled that one of its DJ narrators was British by trotting him out in a dinner jacket, as if all the English DJs in the early years of rock 'n' roll were broadcasting in evening dress. Hilarious.

Equally grim (although it's mostly the script) is the schlocky sequence at the Apollo Theater when the African-American artists who own the joint are surprised to see that Buddy Holly and the Crickets are white guys.

Joerder milks that gag with so much histrionic gesticulation that a fairly ridiculous scene becomes truly awful. Herein, the Crickets poke their head through the curtains and panic, apparently unaware that the population of Harlem was largely black.

Granted, they were from Lubbock, Texas, and unfamiliar with New York ways, but still. This is about as subtle as the line in "Peggy Sue" that goes "pretty, pretty, pretty, pretty."

One could go on. The show does. When Christopher is singing, we're all fine (this cast has some impressively multitasking ensemble members who play, sing, dance and switch wigs with dizzying rapidity, and the Crickets click nicely).

When it turns its attention to a remarkable life cut short, one craves a reboot, a new way to cut through the fog of all these behind-the-music shows and remind us anew that on the day the music died, it did not die for nothing.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through June 30

Where: Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 mins.

Tickets: $22-85 at 800-775-2000 or Broadwayinchicago.com