The latest version of “The Buddy Holly Story,” presented at the Marriott Theatre, takes us from the start of Holly’s music career as a country-and-western artist to being, what the program ostensibly labels, the father of rock ‘n’ roll and culminates in his tragic death in a plane crash on February 3, 1959.
A glowing dial radio sits atop a lonely stool, the pre-show buzz of the crowd like static heard while flipping through stations. The lights go down and a voice with a sturdy Texas drawl announces Buddy Holly & The Crickets, a trio of guitar, bass and drums, who appear in spotlight and deliver a meandering version of the country tune “Flower of My Heart.” Holly (Michael Kurowski) gives a furtive glance to bandmates Joe Maudlin (Shaun Whitley) and Jerry Allison (Jed Feber) and yells “Let’s do it, boys!” before launching into a string-shredding rendition of Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy.” The stunt gets Holly fired from his gig but lands him a deal with prestigious Decca Records; thus, the story of Buddy Holly begins.
Holly is portrayed as a divisive figure, doing things his way or no way at all. His Decca contract falls apart due to artistic disagreements and his band faces hardships when the others don’t live up to Holly’s grand expectations. Of course, history sides with Holly, further evinced by the twenty-plus hit tunes presented here, with rock-star lighting accompanied by clapping along from the audience. The audience is invited to join in, as during a guest appearance by The Big Bopper (David Stobbe) who, while standing atop a piano, engages the audience in a call-and-response—“I say ‘Whoa-ohwoo-oh, ba-by’! Now you say…”
In this and similar shows geared toward nostalgia—“Million Dollar Quartet,” “One Night in Memphis”—half the fun is in the actors’ interpretations of these legendary musical stars. Kurowski’s version of Holly is less rigid than his real-life counterpart, incorporating rubber legs and a Jerry Lee Lewis-style hair flip while delivering pitch-perfect renditions of “Everyday,” “Peggy Sue” and “That’ll Be The Day.” Less imposing and bombastic than the 1978 film version played by Gary Busey, this Holly’s personality is more coy, his hands less confident on the guitar—“I’m gonna work on that solo,” he tells the audience during his famous appearance at Harlem’s Apollo Theater. When on a roll, Kurowski as Holly has a commanding presence, at one moment bursting a guitar string, sending the spotlight to the drummer for a solo while he removes the offending filament, then coming right back in as if it were nothing. Within the Buddy Holly multiverse, Kurowski presents Holly as a spitfire while retaining the soft sentimentality and anxiousness of youth—it’s easy to forget Holly was only twenty-two years old when he died.
The entire supporting cast delivers an immaculate performance, switching between roles and instruments like synchronized swimmers moving through warm water. Special mention to the angelic harmonies produced by the all-female “Jingles Singers” quartet (Melanie Brezill, Cory Goodrich, Maria Elena and Vi Petty), Jordan Arredondo as an effervescent Ritchie Valens and David Stobbe who steals the show with his larger-than-life portrayals of The Big Bopper and music producer Hipockets Duncan.
“The Buddy Holly Story” is a heartwarming story wrapped around a rock concert that slips smoothly from song to song and compels the audience to tap their feet, clap their hands and sing along.
“The Buddy Holly Story” at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire. Tickets are $59-$69, marriotttheatre.com, (847)634-0200. Through August 13.