I have never been a big fan of jukebox musicals. They can be fun but in general it’s lazy musical theater, meant for audiences afraid to try anything new. The shows take a collection of already published music from one particular person or band or genre, and either loosely connect them in an effort to form a story (Mamma Mia!, Movin’ Out, Rock of Ages) or use them in telling the story of the singer/band (Jersey Boys, The Boy from Oz). Critically, occasionally they work well and often they fall flat, but audiences (particularly those not familiar with or appreciative of the more original work on Broadway) tend to love them. Producers do to, because they come with an established fan base ready to splurge on tickets to see music they already know performed by people who remind them of the musicians they already love, and they get to say they saw a piece of theater. For those of us who prefer edgy, sexy, and original music (Cabaret and Pippin are two of my favorites), it’s frustrating to see more and more popping up on Broadway when there is plenty of original work to use, but at the same time I love any reason to get people in theaters. And one of the best parts of these types of shows, particularly the smaller casts of touring productions, is that you get an impressive group of extremely talented people playing multiple roles and multiple instruments.
The Buddy Holly Story is one of the original jukebox musicals, originally opening in 1989 and running on London’s West End for 12 years before a successful Broadway run and international tours. It was critically acclaimed and popular before the more formulaic eye-roll-inducing Mamma-Mia-inspired flops took over the Great White Way (Lennon, Good Vibrations, Ring of Fire, Hot Feet). The production I saw last night, currently playing at The Laguna Playhouse, is a cast of 14 dancers-singers-actors-musicians, many of whom have been playing these roles in multiple productions. For Todd Meredith, this marks his 15th time in the title role, in addition to performing all over the country in a Buddy Holly tribute band along with bassist (and trombonist) Bill Morey, who is in his 5th production of TBHS. Pinch-his-cheeks-adorable Emilio Ramos reprises his role of Ritchie Valens (almost stealing the show with his La Bamba, my favorite performance of the night), and a boisterous Mike Brennan plays the Big Bopper for the fifth time. This isn’t just a job for these guys, these are parts they were born to play and they are killing it up there. I am not ashamed to say that when it came to the end of the story, the night the proverbial music died, I got a little teary-eyed. And I KNEW how it would end! This little jukebox musical and its stars grabbed at my heartstrings.
Why not go? If you hate Buddy Holly music (and who hates Buddy Holly music?!) you won’t like this, because that’s pretty much all it is. If you prefer shows with elaborate sets, precision choreography, deep plots or spectacle, this show is not for you.
Why go? Do you find yourself tapping your feet or singing along every time Peggy Sue, That’ll Be the Day, Chantilly Lace, or Johnny B. Goode comes on the radio? Are you AT ALL interested in the history of American music? Do you need a wholesome show to take your kids or in-laws to? Most importantly do you (like me) enjoy watching really talented people doing what they do best and having a hell of a good time doing it? Then go. Go, sing along, get up and dance, and leave the theater with your cheesy cardboard black geek glasses remembering the short life of the single most influential creative force in early rock and roll.
SIDE NOTE– if you see it at The Laguna Playhouse, or ANYTHING at The Laguna Playhouse and you measure 5’4″ or below, don’t get balcony seats. I had to sit on the edge of my seat to see anything below the performers’ shoulders. Petite problems.
The Buddy Holly Story is playing at the Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach, California through August 10th. Tickets can be purchased at http://www.lagunaplayhouse.com. For other productions around the country and the world, visit www.buddythemusical.com.