April 21, 2005
Never in my life would I have imagined hearing the phrase “Are you ready to rock?” in a dinner theater, much less hearing it met by an audience squealing in rapturous delight.
Such is the magic of “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story,” a bubbly, unabashedly fluffy musical theater retrospective charting the short life of the ’50s rocker behind such gems as “That’ll Be the Day,” and “Peggy Sue.”
The production at Mesa’s Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre is big on charm, rocks loud as a concert and features as its Holly a young man — Omaha, Neb., native Billy McGuigan, 30 — who, no small feat, will make you forget Gary Busey’s turn as Holly in the 1978 biopic from which the stage musical “Buddy” draws its inspiration.
McGuigan has Holly’s tics down to a T: The hiccup that punctuates Holly’s vocals; a singing tone that alternates between sweet, prankishly childlike and open-throated Elvis riff; a manner that suggests this was indeed a rock phenomenon who died at the age of 22.
McGuigan’s less adept at the guitar. The actor takes a mechanical, gawky approach to solos. But that don’t mean Bo Diddley in a show this darn fun.
The show offers up the obligatory life anecdotes — Holly going from a country crooner in Lubbock, Texas, to a bona fide rocker with a recording contract and major radio airplay — but plot is largely glossed over.
“Buddy’s” primary aim is to let Holly and his backing band, the Crickets, belt out tune after tune, a grand 25-song set list, culminating in Holly’s last concert in Clear Lake, Iowa. It’s a moment of history: Holly sharing a bill with the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens before the trio boarded a small plane that would crash, killing them all.
The Bopper and Valens make appearances in “Buddy” and croon their hits to varying degrees of success: Valens (Justin Barnum) is just awful, and the cast’s rendition of “La Bamba” is the show’s low point. But the Bopper (Chuck Caruso) is a hoot.
Clocking in at just over two hours, “Buddy” does the impossible. It whips audiences into a frenzy, gets them up on their feet for an encore (dinner theater audiences never give standing ovations) and sends them out to their cars buzzing on a cloud of three-chord delight.
Serious theater, it sure as heck isn’t. But it’s enough to see a dinner theater crowd — full bellies, bad hips, sciatica, what have you — rockin’ like it’s 1959.