Playwright: Alan James and Rob Bettison
At: The Mercury Theatre, 3745 N. Southport Ave.
Phone: 773-325-1700; $32.50-$38.50
Runs through: March 18
BY MARY SHEN BARNIDGE
Young people listening to vintage recordings of Buddy Holly's greatest hits might wonder what all the fuss was about. It's often necessary to hear the original That'll Be The Day alongside, say, The Tennessee Waltz or Tumbling Tumbleweeds to get an idea of the impact inflicted by this innovative artist on the course of popular entertainment in mid-20th-century America. At a time when few artists crossed ethnic lines, Holly incorporated the musical styles of minority subcultures into his own compositions—so successfully, in fact, that the managers at Harlem's Apollo Theatre booked his band as a Black group, making them the first Anglos to play that legendary venue. And he married a Latina, an unheard-of act of miscegenation in 1950s Texas.
Alan James and Rob Bettison, in adapting the 1978 film to the stage, were savvy enough to keep the text to Trials and Triumphs as it bridged one immortal song after the other. To be sure, this home-grown commercially-produced rendition of the 1989 biorevue includes a few period-generic ditties to establish context—the fictional Hayriders performing Rose of Texas; Etta James warbling a bit of At Last; and the likewise mythical Jack Daw and the Snowbirds covering Frankie Lyman's Why Do Fools Fall In Love.
The Buddy Holly Story is not how accurately it mimics the original sound ( s ) , but how closely it replicates the excitement generated by the shock of an art form at its very birth. And if Josh Solomon's Holly occasionally wanders off-melody, and director/choreographer Janet Louer off-chronology, that's not the point. What matters is that Solomon is the same age as his character and, thus, able to project the youthful energy and adolescent awkwardness that was as much a part of Holly's persona as his trademark horn-rims.
What also distinguishes the show currently occupying the Mercury Theatre is that all onstage personnel—from Solomon himself, to The Crickets' Nate Bellon on bull fiddle and Daniel J. Rosenthal on the mighty Ludwig drums, to the tambourine-girl who gawks at Ritchie Valens' matador pants—play their own instruments. With that much talent and adrenaline heating up the stage, James Turano's Big Bopper had no trouble pumping up the spectator frenzy on a subzero Saturday night like you might find at a touring concert in Clear Lake, Iowa.