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Broadway Revisits a Rock Hero

Buddy Holly musical captures the late singer's sounds but fails to look below the surface. THEATER

ONCE in a while I dust off my personalized, cheerfully biased history of rock-and-roll and see how it's holding up. The presence of ``Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story'' on Broadway marks a good occasion to do this again, so here goes: The '50s: The golden age of rock-and-roll, when a zillion groups and individuals nobody had heard of before - and wouldn't hear of again, in many cases - created superb and enduring music on the strength of instinct, intuition, and sheer inspiration. Although voices were privileged over instruments, the electric guitar and saxophone emerged as the backbones of the form, taking on new importance in pop culture. Melodies and harmonies were so basic that you could hum along with songs as you heard them for the first time; yet variety and versatility seemed endless.

The '60s: Rock fell into a rut during the early years of this decade, with sounds more self-consciously sophisticated but less earthily appealing than the '50s kind. Then the British Invasion saved the day, as bands like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones injected pop with new vitality. Add the ``psychedelic'' innovations of Jimi Hendrix and Donovan, and the raging poetics of Bob Dylan, and you have another brilliant period.

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The '70s: Rock lost much of its fun as virtuosity took precedence over inspiration. Punks and new-wavers contributed spasms of needed vigor, but the outlook for future years wasn't encouraging.

The '80s: Sure enough, a mostly barren ten-year stretch.

The '90s: Guilty until proven innocent.

If you accept this critical chronology, it isn't surprising that the best rock-and-roll movies of the past dozen years have focused on '50s icons - Richie Valens in ``La Bamba'' and Jerry Lee Lewis in ``Great Balls of Fire,'' especially. ``The Buddy Holly Story'' was the best of these films, even though Mr. Holly's life had little in the way of built-in drama or conflict.

``Buddy,'' now on stage at the Shubert, covers much of the same territory explored by that movie: Holly's rise to fame in his native Texas; his loyalty to the Crickets, his two-man backup group; his sudden and ecstatic marriage to a Puerto Rican recording-studio receptionist; and the hardships of the one-night-stand circuit that consolidated his fame and led to his death in a 1959 plane crash, on what a later songwriter called ``the day the music died.''

Since this is basically a success story with an unhappy ending that pop fans already know, the creators of ``Buddy'' rely more on music than on drama to make it involving. Scenes of dialogue and action are just filler to whisk us from one song-session to another.

Fortunately, the songs are sung with gusto and fidelity by Paul Hipp, an engaging performer with a solid grasp of Holly's most memorable mannerisms. Other assets include colorful sets by Andy Walmsley and expressive costumes by Bill Butler and Carolyn Smith.

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It's too bad writer Alan Janes and director Rob Bettinson don't find hidden depths in Holly's story, or make any effort to peer beneath the surface of '50s nostalgia. More could have been done with Holly's brave insistence on singing ``colored music'' at a time of rampant Jim Crow racism.

Then too, the show doesn't emphasize the qualities of wit and nuance that made Holly's vocal style perhaps the most complex of its period. Also on the minus side, some of the second-act numbers (such as a hokey audience-participation routine) are pointless.

Certain musical choices are disappointing: ``That'll Be the Day,'' one of my candidates for all-time-greatest rock song, is taken at an oddly listless pace, while ``Peggy Sue'' and ``Well Alright'' aren't performed all the way through. And why does the second act finish with a Chuck Berry tune instead of a Holly classic?

There's no faulting Mr. Hipp's energy and enthusiasm, though, or the outstanding contributions of David Mucci as the Big Bopper and Steve Steiner as Jack Daw, a quintessential doo-wop singer. When they're onstage, ``Buddy'' is a lovable tribute to rock-and-roll's fabulous era.

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