Stage review: 'Buddy' re-creates Holly's musical magic

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"Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story" transports us back to those not-so-simple 1950s, before the Justin Timberlakes and Justin Biebers, when a bespectacled Texas teenager could find his way to the forefront of the rock 'n' roll revolution that was giving parents fits and sending their kids into a frenzy. The touring musical that closes the Pittsburgh CLO season has some high-voltage throwback numbers, but it also is a reminder of what was gained and what was lost the day the music died.

Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash at age 22, but for 18 months, he rode a skyrocket to the top of the charts. In "Buddy," Holly's rockabilly sound and style is in the capable hands of Kurt Jenkins, who evolves from a nerdy, cocky kid to a confident performer before our eyes. You wouldn't peg him as a hick from Lubbock, Texas, at any point, and his vocals aren't strict, hiccup-laced impersonations, but he captures the youthful awkwardness and exuberance of young Buddy, and he rocks the rafters on hits such as "That'll Be the Day, "Maybe Baby" and "Oh Boy." His musicianship follows closely what we know of black and white clips of Buddy, the guitar player, and includes an impressive, sustained behind-the-back maneuver.

Buddy Holly's music and story hasn't faded with time, but even for those who know both in detail, it's still a fun night. His inevitable death along with J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson and Ritchie Valens -- scene-stealers Ryan Duncan and Ryan Jagru -- lends a poignancy to the proceedings but doesn't overwhelm them. One of the first successful jukebox musicals, "Buddy" covers Holly's life from January 1956 through his last concert and the plane crash on Feb. 3, 1959. The show premiered in London's West End in 1989, where it ran for 12 years, and a Broadway production followed in 1990. The 1950s hits performed on stage include a rousing rendition of "Shout" by Lacretta Nicole, a scene from Holly's Apollo Theater appearance.

'Buddy -- The Buddy Holly Story'

Where: Pittsburgh CLO at the Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: Through Sunday. 8 p.m. through Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: Start at $45.75; or 412-456-6666.

Her number and Mr. Dunkin's uncanny "Chantilly Lace" during the depiction of the final concert had the Benedum crowd joining in and clapping along. Although the performers encouraged a concert-like atmosphere, the opening-night crowd was a little tentative about acting like a rock 'n' roll audience, but they finally were on their feet at the end. During the Crickets' musical numbers, it was hard to ignore the gymnastics of Sam Weber's bassist Joe B. Mauldin and as a trumpeter in the finale. He played the bass upright, upside down and sideways and even climbed on it once or twice, as did Mr. Jenkins.

The play moves along chronologically, with radio broadcasts as connective tissue to time and place. There are slow moments in the first act, when Holly and his Crickets bandmates held what seemed like an endless recording session in Clovis, N.M., and our only reward was snippets of songs -- a single line from "Maybe Baby" is not nearly enough. It was a relief when the band arrived at the Apollo Theater, where Buddy and his buddies realize they have come to "a colored theater," and the all-black audience is shocked to see that the guys they have been enjoying on the radio are white. In quick succession, Buddy finds his footing as a performer on "Not Fade Away," "Peggy Sue," "Words of Love" and "Oh Boy," a mini concert leading to intermission.

Those songs alone would be enough to realize why Holly's music has stretched across the six decades since his death, from oldies stations to iPods. The music mastered by the gangly kid with the big glasses has influenced bands from the Beatles to Weezer, has been reintroduced by the Grateful Dead and was re-created by Gary Busey on film in an Oscar-nominated performance. The book by Alan Janes includes how "Cindy Lou" became "Peggy Sue" and how Buddy's nerdy charm quickly won over his wife, Maria Elena (Noella Hernandez), who was pregnant at the time of Buddy's death. In a sweet scene that's one of the few quiet moments, Buddy takes out an acoustic guitar and sings the ballad "True Love Ways." The show draws to a close on a jolt -- the reminder of how young the crash victims were -- before a return to the final concert and a rollicking version of "Johnny B. Goode," in which the choreography by Norb Joerder (he also directed) throws in a synchronized Chuck Berry-esque duck walk and Mr. Jenkins captures the moves that are immediately recognizable as Holly's.

"Buddy" ends the summer season for Pittsburgh CLO with a party atmosphere for fans of rock pioneers whose legacy hasn't faded away. Some oldies never get old.

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Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960.


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