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Holly's life too short, but Rainbow musical too long, too happy

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Jeff Giles stars as Buddy Holly (centre) in Rainbow Stage's biographical jukebox musical.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Enlarge Image

Jeff Giles stars as Buddy Holly (centre) in Rainbow Stage's biographical jukebox musical. Photo Store

This broad-strokes musical hagiography of Buddy Holly may have some Rainbow Stage patrons asking: When exactly is dinner served?

The production is as good as it can be. The dinner-theatre vibe is an unavoidable byproduct of the play itself, an artless, forcibly jubilant celebration of the life of a doomed pop star.

Written by Alan Janes and first produced in London's West End in back in 1989, Buddy is credited with launching the phenomenon of the "jukebox musical." If it is unique, it's because it hews close to the life of Buddy Holly, as opposed to subsequent jukeboxers (Mamma Mia!, We Will Rock You, Rock of Ages), which spun out original stories using select playlists of hit songs.

Janes' book follows the Lubbock, Texas-born Charles Hardin "Buddy" Holley (not actually "Holly") in his efforts to become a recording star from the age of 19 to his tragic death at the age of 22.

Lubbock is emphatically a country-music town, and Buddy (played by an energetic Jeff Giles) is told in no uncertain terms that any other style of music is unwelcome. "Folks out here get real offended by that rock 'n' roll," he is told by Lubbock DJ Hipockets Duncan (Carson Nattrass). Elsewhere, we hear a psychiatrist labelling Holly's musical genre as "a communicable disease."

But Buddy has a dream. In the first act, his turbulent career path takes him to his historic concert in Harlem's Apollo Theater, where he gains quick acceptance from black audiences.

By the second act, we see Holly fall madly in love with publishing-company receptionist Maria Elena Santiago (Kimberly Rampersad), proposing marriage within five hours of their first meeting, a union that takes the sting out of Holly's subsequent breakup with his band, The Crickets.

It all leads to that fateful concert in the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa, where Holly and fellow performers Big Bopper (Gerrit Theule) and Ritchie Valens (Curtis Brown) would subsequently take a plane to rock 'n' roll heaven.

As directed by Ray Hogg, Rainbow's production pushes the rote airbrushed fantasy of the '50s with roller skates/pressed dungarees/A-line skirts/platinum blond hair up the wazoo. Set designer Sean Mulcahy's two-tiered turntable set elegantly serves multiple settings and functions.

Performances are mostly solid from a cast whose members frequently qualify as quadruple threats -- singing, dancing, acting and playing instruments.

At its best, the musical does compel a consideration of Holly's pop brilliance. The fact that he wrote and recorded all these rock standards before he made his 23rd birthday is truly impressive.

But coming in at a ponderous three hours (including intermission) and featuring some 33 musical performances, the musical is too completist for its own good.

It gives us too much time -- time that may be spent distractedly contemplating this production's intermittent non sequiturs:

Why doesn't the Big Bopper have any hair?

What's with the redundancy in the title?

Why on earth is the climactic music performance Chuck Berry's Johnny B. Goode?

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 13, 2013 c3

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