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Rock ’n’ roll’s draw modeled in Civic Theatre rarity

The Spokane Civic Theatre’s “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” isn’t merely about the rock ’n’ roll of the 1950s; it IS the rock ’n’ roll of the 1950s.

By that, I mean its appeal is exactly the same – it’s upbeat, energetic, youthful and just plain fun. I also mean that the show consists largely of rock ’n’ roll performed concert-style. And finally, I mean that if someone from Mars were curious about why rock ’n’ roll took over the Earth in the late 1950s, this show provides a pretty good answer.

In fact, it provides the answer in the first scene, when an unknown Lubbock, Texas, band called the Crickets, fronted by Buddy Holly, starts playing a country song. It’s slow, forlorn and plodding. In the middle of this weeper, Holly turns to his band mates with a mischievous grin and breaks into his own raucous, good-time song, “Ready Teddy.” It’s blazing fast, catchy and alive.

Which is not a bad description of the Civic’s production overall.

None of this would have worked without a charismatic and wholly successful performance by Brian Gunn as Buddy Holly. “Buddy” is a show that relies to an exceptionally high degree on one performer. That performer must be able to play a guitar, sing in a sweet, high voice (with some country and blues overtones), and create a quirky and charismatic character.

Gunn makes it all look easy. First, there’s the guitar-playing, which he learned in an intensive crash course with Spokane guitar master Joe Brasch. Gunn not only reproduces Holly’s chiming sound with reasonable accuracy, he makes it look effortless.

His voice is sweet and pure on songs like “Everyday.” And he easily pulls off Holly’s characteristic hiccups in songs such as “Peggy Sue.” He clearly has a good musical ear, which is hard to teach.

More importantly, he carries himself with a confidence and charisma absolutely essential to conveying Buddy’s story. Holly had a gawky, unusual appeal – all thick glasses and sly grins – and Gunn’s performance made me realize how Holly was able to become an object of rock adoration despite having none of the standard Elvis sex appeal.

Gunn has plenty of help, of course. The two other Crickets, played well by Dave Turner and James Elvidge, are amiable characters with good musical chops. Michael Hynes as Lubbock’s disc jockey Hipockets Duncan and Daniel Griffith as Holly’s indispensable producer Norman Petty contribute solid supporting performances.

Yet I would not go to “Buddy” expecting much in the way of riveting drama. Buddy’s life is portrayed in a series of predictable and often stiff scenes, which can be summed up in one quick sentence: Buddy overcame all doubters to become a beloved national sensation.

The one truly touching moment in the show is powerfully staged by director Yvonne A.K. Johnson. In the middle of Buddy’s final, fateful concert in Clear Lake, Iowa, in 1959, the music stops mid-song. The lights go black. In a niche above the audience, Hipockets Duncan sits alone in his radio studio, delivering an elegy to Buddy Holly, dead in a plane crash.

Then, after a pause, the lights flash back on and Buddy is singing again. The message: The music did not die that day.

This was staged far differently than it was in the national tour – but equally effectively.

This is, as Johnson has said, a different kind of show for the Civic. Staging it is more like staging a two-hour rock concert. The first half re-creates an Apollo Theater gig in Harlem, with great supporting performances by the excellent David Allen McElroy and Keyonna Knight.

The second half re-creates the Clear Lake concert, with spot-on impersonations of J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson by Jhon Goodwin, and of Ritchie Valens by Paul Villabrille.

This creates a whole new set of challenges in staging and technical direction. Johnson and technical director Peter Hardie pull it all off smoothly, although they might want to tinker with the sound levels and sound mixing on a few numbers.

Still, the message comes through loud and clear, summed up in Gunn’s final line: Buddy’s back in town.