The wholesome, if cheesy, Buddy tells the story of seminal 1950s Rock & Roll sensation Buddy Holly in a series of mini concerts and vignettes showcasing the star’s most impactful hits during his 18-month meteoric rise to fame.
Though Buddy Holly’s career was short-lived — he met his untimely death at the age of 22 in an infamous plane crash that also took the lives of fellow musicians Ritchie Valens and J.P. Richardson, Jr., also known as “The Big Bopper” — his work became a major influence for later musicians like Elvis Costello, The Beatles, Bob Dylan and countless other renowned rockers.
Actor and musician Andy Christopher brings an earnestness to Holly that is nerdy, adorable and downright contagious. Though his performance is upbeat, he doesn’t miss the opportunity to add the nuance of a musician who knows his craft well and is determined to use his superior work ethic to push for his vision to materialize into real success.
Because the actors in this production play their own instruments live onstage, each song is like its own mini concert. Not only does the band demonstrate excellent technique and mastery of their instruments, but they also each bring a delightful stage presence to their performances — every song is lively and different from the rest. In particular, Spiff Wiegand as Joe B. Mauldin displays some impressive tricks with his upright bass that serve to pepper in extra flair.
The Playhouse’s Buddy features a supremely cool Midcentury Modern set designed by Christian Boy in his Queen City debut. Though minimalistic in nature, it features strong lines and rounded edges on several tall pieces adorned with images that help set the scene for the late-’50s tale.
In fact, the entire set is saturated with retro vibes. From the rich, red velvet curtain to the incredibly handsome Shure 55 microphones, the design oozes vintage cool. Even the floor participates in the theme, displaying a pattern of guitar tablature.
The show is narrated by a Radio DJ named Hipockets Duncan — played by the boisterous Jayson Elliott — and other characters throughout the story. One notably impressive part of the scenic design features Duncan’s seafoam green metal desk, which sits off to the left side of the stage and close to the audience. Outfitted with only a turntable, a handful of records and a microphone, each narrative moment that takes place at the desk is stunningly lit with a soft, warm spotlight. The atmospheric effect transforms the piece into a vignette of a lonely night-DJ of days gone by.
The sound design, conceived by Matt Kraus, was clear and crisp throughout the performance. At times, though, the lead vocals felt a little too forward and emphasized. The choice was great for clarity, but the overall sound mix didn’t feel quite as Rock & Roll as it had the potential to.
Tracy Christensen’s costume design was so spot on and thoroughly Midcentury that I found myself yearning for a trip to Northside’s Casablanca Vintage to hunt down a jacket (or two) similar to the effortlessly hip orange-and-blue Western jacket Christopher wears as Holly near the top of the first act. And, of course, Holly’s classic thick, black glasses get progressively more pronounced as he grows into his role throughout the show.
Buddy is perfect for all ages. Though it does depict quite a sanitized — and mostly white — version of mid-’50s Rock & Roll, the lively performances and fun character work should captivate the young and old. Because Holly’s music is so catchy, and because the actors are so practiced and lively, it’s easy to catch yourself bobbing or clapping along to hit after hit.
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story is onstage at the Playhouse in the Park (962 Mt. Adams Circle, Mount Adams) through Feb. 16. Tickets/more info: cincyplay.com.