This bio musical sojourn through the tragically short life and career of rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Buddy Holly (Van Zeiler) premieres in Los Angeles exactly 41 years after the night Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper appeared at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, the final concert for these three artists who would board a plane that would never reach its final destination. Covering the period of Holly’s ascent to stardom (January 1956 to February 1959), the production is at its best when re-creating Holly’s boyish enthusiasm and magnetism as a concert performer, but bogs down in its overly long attempt to faithfully re-create the singer’s recording studio tribulations as he slowly evolves as an artist.
Director Paul Mills makes good use of Andy Walmsley’s multi-level set to re-create the aura of musically innocent Lubbock, Texas, at the dawn of the rock era and the emergence of geekish, bespectacled singer-songwriter Holly who eschewed the popular Country and Western style of the times in favor of the taboo back-beat rhythms coming out of Memphis, Kansas City and the big cities up north. It would be difficult to imagine a more perfect Holly than Zeiler, who embodies the late singer’s rural, unhip persona, while flawlessly duplicating Holly’s vocal and instrumental dexterity. He is ably supported by Steve Friday and Fred Berman as Holly’s hickish back-up musicians, Joe Mauldin and Jerry Allison, respectively.
It is interesting that the most effective number of the first act is the introspective ballad, “Every Day,” which features revolutionary-for-the-times celeste accompaniment. The up-tempo tunes don’t fare as well. In remaining faithful to Holly’s simplistic guitar/bass/drums arrangements and recordings of such icons as “Ready Teddy,” “That’ll Be The Day,” “Peggy Sue,” and “Maybe Baby,” the production often falls short in projecting the needed vitality to envelop a 2,600-plus seat theater. A much-needed infusion of energy occurs when Holly’s band is assisted by a profusion of musicians and singers during the first act closing re-creation of Holly’s historic performance of “Oh Boy” at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.
The second act spotlights Holly’s whirlwind courtship of his Latina bride, Maria Elena (portrayed with a jarringly inappropriate Spanish accent by Victoria Stilwell) and Holly’s final public appearance in Clear Lake. The concert utilizes the complete ensemble to help energize such classics as the Big Bopper’s (Travis Turpin) rendition of “Chantilly Lace” and Valens’ (Bob Langeder) “La Bamba.” The added personnel does much to sweep up the audience into a foot-stomping, hand-clapping affirmation of the show-closing, “Rave On.”