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THEATER REVIEW Buddy
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2018-05-09

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Playwright: Alan James and multiple composers/lyricists

At: American Blues Theatre at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-325-5252; AmericanBluesTheater.com; $19-$49. Runs through: May 26 ( extension likely )

Conspiracy theorists are correct: Fluoridated water and rock 'n' roll music were 1950s Communist plots designed to rot the minds of young Americans. The result is that we now have Donald Trump.

On the other hand, perhaps Buddy Holly and the Crickets struck some primordial note among pre-adolescents such as myself. High-spirited, driving and almost-naively simple, their music touched us in some molecular way that helped define who we would be. Overlap with Elvis, the Everly Brothers and others was undeniable, but Holly had a purity that set him apart.

My pre-adolescence paraded before me at Buddy, the story of the short, mostly-sweet life of the early-rock icon. It's a mind-poppingly energetic production which delivers as much musical bang for your buck as you will find anywhere in Chicago.

Actually, it isn't the life story of Charles Hardin Holley ( his real name ). There's nothing about his background. He's 20 years old when Buddy begins and already a musical star around his hometown of Lubbock, Texas: He'd been a country music opening act for Elvis three times. True, he was expanding beyond his rockabilly and country roots under the influence of blues and R&B, but he never completely abandoned either one before his plane crash death at 22. Who knows where he would have gone artistically? Stories say he wanted to record with Ray Charles and Mahalia Jackson, and—having moved to New York—he was taking acting lessons at the Actors Studio. Buddy, Patsy Cline, John Denver, Rick Nelson. Airplane wrecks don't care about talent or possibilities.

So, there's little story and even less drama in Buddy. It's not a true jukebox musical ( as, say, All Shook Up ) because the songs—a nearly non-stop flow of them—don't convey story or character. The music mostly is Holly and The Crickets with a few other songs also featured, among them "Shout," Why Do Fools Fall in Love," "Chantilly Lace" and "Johnny B Goode." All are performed to perfection by 16 superb singer-actors, most also doubling as star-quality instrumentalists who probably are far better than the originals, right up to Zachary Stevenson in the title role. Looking approximately like Holly—although older and without curly hair—he has charm and musical chops to spare. His wonderful Crickets are Shaun Whitley ( superb slap bassist ), Kieran McCabe ( the drummer who married Peggy Sue ) and sometimes Michael Mahler ( the production's gifted musical director ) as the second guitarist Holly made standard in rock-band instrumentation.

The large supporting cast sings wonderfully and performs with energy and humor, all under director Lili-Anne Brown and Mahler. Acts I and II both end as mini-concerts. If you don't stomp your feet and shout, you're probably dead.


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