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"The Buddy Holly Story" celebrates a singular talent without shining much light on the man. 

Who's Your "Buddy"?

It's a tragedy that few people were able to experience the thrill of a live Buddy Holly performance. You can check out "Buddy … The Buddy Holly Story," a touring musical currently at the Landmark Theater, if you'd like to feel at least some of the power the young rocker projected during his short but influential life. However, if you are looking for insight into the brilliant mind that created seminal hits like "Not Fade Away" and "That'll Be the Day" — or even looking for an interesting and well-told story — look elsewhere. This clichéd and thinly plotted musical will satisfy only those yearning to relive the giddy early days of rock 'n' roll and partake of the exuberance of Holly's music.

The creators of "Buddy" are a little hamstrung by the brevity of Holly's career. The groundbreaking musician burst onto the national scene in 1957 with an unprecedented string of original hits, but then died in a plane crash less than two years later. The show's first act adequately charts Holly's meteoric rise with his backing band, the Crickets, along for the ride. As Buddy, Van Zeiler has a compelling stage presence and a flexible voice that expertly mimics the unique hiccuping singing style Holly sometimes employed. All the boys in the band are natural showmen, with bassist Joe Mauldin (Steve Friday) even engaging in some onstage acrobatics. The large multilevel set is effectively used to add urgency to different scenes, like when disc jockeys at radio stations around the country are shown hyping Holly's hits.

But with few plot points left to cover, the second act spends most of its time re-enacting Holly's final concert, the "night that music died" alluded to in the song "American Pie." This allows performances of Richie Valens' "La Bamba" and the Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace" to complement lively versions of "Maybe Baby" and "Rave On." But it also seems to have forced director Paul Mills to wedge an acknowledgment of Holly's tragic plane crash into an awkward moment between choruses of the night's last song.

Holly's life is presented less as a story than as a series of fun facts (hey, did you know that "Peggy Sue" was originally "Cindy Lou?" Or that "Everyday" was recorded in one take?). As characterized in Alan Janes' script, Holly is prone to spouting hackneyed phrases like "I want to play my music my way." The best scene depicts Holly's reach across racial lines, dramatized by his appearance at Harlem's Apollo Theater. But the energetic staging here sheds an unfavorable light on some of the earlier, more static scenes. Also, while the show sometimes threatened to bust out of the intimate confines of Norfolk's Harrison Opera House (where I saw the show), smaller moments may be lost in the vastness of the Landmark.

Still, as a celebration of an era, "Buddy" succeeds on the strength of Holly's music, which maintains its uplifting appeal even today. Hits like "Oh Boy" will compel your hands to clap and toes to tap without any conscious thought. If you're up for a straight-ahead rock 'n' roll romp, "Buddy" is your man.



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