Tuesday 24 July 2012

Rave on, oh boy, no doubt about it !

Zoom Spot : Zippety-do-dah rockabilly tunes, all catchy and jived-up with Harlem beats at the edges – these are the joyz of Buddy Holly’s music. As it was in ’59, so it is again in ‘012.  Listening to Holly’s music is like taking a ride in a moonshiner’s Hemi with Wolfman Jack barking on the AM and girls yielding to paroxysms of glee while rockin’ in the back seat.

This 3rd-consecutive-year run of the show with the hokey do-over title Buddy : The Buddy Holly Story is bustagut fun that finds folks finger-popping their way out the exits onto Granville Street. The grinning and good cheer are thanks largely to Zachary Stevenson who once again aces the role of Buddy and commands centre stage with just the right mix of twang and swagger. And like the promo shots suggest, he blows a real mean guitar, too.

Backdrop : Buddy has been around since 1989 and has been seen by some 20 million people world-wide, with remounts almost every year in the UK. It’s what the theatre-trade calls a “jukebox musical” – a couple dozen songs by the artist done almost as a concert – with some sketchy dialogue thrown in to make it seem like *drama*.

The moonshot of Buddy’s career – some 20 blockbuster hits in just three years – rocketed a 19-year-old from Lubbock, TX to fame before crashing at 22 in a lowly single-engine commuter plane onto an Iowa cornfield. An iconic accident : happened during a snowstorm in the wee small hours following a Ground Hog’s Day concert in the Surf Ballroom with Ritchie Valens, J.P. (The Big Bopper) Richardson and Dion-&-The Belmonts. In Buddy, that last Ground Hog’s Day of his is lived over-&-over-&-over-&-over in apotheosis of this nerdy cowpoke – he who trademarked the legendary black-frame goggles that Roy Orbison later sported too (BH’s last pair was recovered from the plane wreck and is on display at the Clear Lake museum).

The story-line is “accurate” in fact if not altogether “true” in nuance or gestalt. From a failed contract with Decca where he refused to sing the corny Roy Rogers stuff of the day, Holly moved on to Norman Petty’s Clovis, New Mexico studio where Petty and his wife Vi – homemaker but also mean celesta player –  helped Buddy and the Crickets mount their stuff their way. Petty not just produced them but co-wrote such smash songs as “Oh Boy” and “Rave On”.  But Petty was eponymous when acting as the band’s manager, pinching royalties every chance.

So after an accidental gig of shows at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre for “Negro” performers, Buddy adopted New York as home base and split from his Lubbock chums the Crix. And right out of West Side Story, he wooed Puerto Rican Maria Elena Santiago – a studio receptionist he’d met briefly that day – doing so with a firecracker 5-hour restaurant and dancehall 1st date. They married a scant two months later.

Maria Elena traveled with Buddy nearly everywhere on tour after that, except that fateful night in Iowa because she was newly pregnant and sicky. On the 50th anniversary of his death she still expressed guilt : “If I had been there he never would have got on that plane.”

Despite Maria Elena being his constant traveling companion, rumours persist that Buddy was capable of dalliance. There’s talk of a backstage tryst with Little Richard and his girlfriend Lee Angel, she of the 50 circumference around the shoulder blades. In a November 1, 2010 interview in GQ magazine, however, Angel faced the tryst story anew. Li’lR had chortled smugly to Charles White for his 1984 authorized biography that Buddy allegedly “…went to the stage still fastening himself up, I’ll never forget that, he came and he went…”.  Retorted a still-indignant Lee to GQ 26 years later : “When I read it, I discovered I’d had far more fun in my life than I myself knew about….I knew Buddy, but I didn’t know I knew Buddy that well.”

Production 2012 : So whether we’re getting an altogether antiseptic version of Charles Hardin Holley or not, fact is the Alan Janes script gives us a charming gosh darn gee whiz man-boy in geeky glasses who’s mostly there to mesmerize us. His copyrighted glottal stops and lyric hiccups zap out the new innocent clich├ęs of the 50’s like these from Ready Teddy that were blasphemy to Lubbock’s redneck radio crowd : 

Well I’m ready, set, go man go,
I got a girl that I love so,
I’m ready, ready teddy to rock and roll.

Well the flat top cats and the dungaree dolls
Are headed for the gym to the sock hop ball,
The joint is really jumping,
The cats are going wild,
The music really sends me,
I dig that crazy style.

Those were the innocent days, when the likes of Elvis and the Everly’s and Dion and Roy were the single largest threat to Canada’s vaunted peace, order and good government. South of 49 these transistor superstars were proof positive the American “pursuit of happiness” commandment would rule for years to come in the-land-of-silk-&-money. This despite the quiet and unheralded start to the 20-year VietNam war in 1955 when BH was just 19. No, the protest days and Woodstock were still far away when I started listening to Buddy et al in Grade 8 while swooning over Mouseketeer Annette Funicello.

But let us back to the future. As Buddy, Zach Stevenson reprises his roles from the past two years in this Bill Millerd-directed piece. As in the past two years, Stevenson bounces and split-jumps and crescendos his slaps of the Fender Stratocaster (or facsimile) in a way doubtless double the kinetic energy that Buddy managed back in the day when his focus was more on the tunes, less on the number of butts in the seats.

If Buddy Holly’s message was simple rockabilly joy in ’59, Zach Stevenson’s Bryan Adams-ish version of Holly is just right 50+ years later. If you never heard one note of rock-&-roll before seeing this – say you were held captive from birth by leprechauns – you’d come away an instant baptiste to all the rock hallelujah running rampant on the Stanley stage. No better cure for the angst brought on by the repeated pop of gunfire we’ve heard this summer – revel instead at the rat-a-tat-tat of snare drums pulsing to a back-up band with shouting sax, trombone and trumpet – brassy dress-up for what were brash tunes during Buddy-time.

Stevenson is given terrific support by the Crickets, bass player Joe (Jeremy Holmes) who all but steals the limelight when spinning his stand-up fiddle in his white sox; Jerry (Scott Carmichael) on the skins; Tommy (Jeff Bryant) on the lead 6-string who all back Buddy up on “That’ll Be The Day”, “Peggy Sue”, “Maybe Baby” and more.

Sasha Niechoda once more gets his team to rip every note off the charts as music director.  The Surf Ballroom (in flat corn country…) and its Winter Dance Party pull our heartstrings maybe a minute or two too long, but still and all Michael Antonakas nails the Ritchie Valens sound though he satirizes his personna. And for his part Kieran Martin Murphy as TBB does a better cover of “Chantilly Lace” again this year than JPR did originally i.m.o.

Valerie Easton’s blocking and choreography make you think the Wurlitzer has been hit by a manic prairie breeze, particularly Stevenson’s Elvis-meets-Garth Brooks signature stage-wide shuffles to-&-fro and all the kicks, but also the stereophonic stage action of the back-up singers particularly in Act 2.

Special mention is due to Tom Pickett as the Apollo MC who was sheer hoot, while Clear Lake MC Alec Willows worked us the Winter Dance Party crowd into shape like a Barrett-Jackson car auction pro.

In all, Stevenson-&-Company’s stage show compensates 100% and more for the lack of emotional engagement from the script storyline that was ‘purposeful’, sure, but dragged the show a bit. But still, that’s how jukebox musicals work.  Rave On! you shall if you take this in.

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