As the title character in the Timber Lake Playhouse's Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, Chris Froseth is a spectacularly confident dork. With his slender frame, curly mop of brown hair, and iconic horn-rimmed glasses, he nails the physicality to perfection, and his cascading drawl and thrilling rock vocals are oftentimes uncannily similar to Holly's. Yet what's even more impressive is how completely the actor seems to capture the singer/songwriter's gawky yet fantastically determined spirit.
A nerd who knows he's a nerd and couldn't care less, Froseth's Holly employs good-ol'-boy charm as a supreme form of faux modesty; during the show's concert segments, he responds to the crowd's applause and cheers with a wide-eyed, open-mouthed grin, as if to say, "Wow, you really like me?" Yet as Alan Janes' and Rob Bettinson's bio-musical tells it, this frequently stubborn perfectionist was hardly self-effacing about either his gifts or his drive - Holly knows there's very good reason for us to like him - and so Froseth, in a magical act of channeling, graces his aw-shucks charisma with a dynamic, unfettered showmanship. Whether crooning an invigorating "Oh Boy" or a tender "True Love Ways," the performer delivers a glorious, big-hearted star turn that suggests he couldn't possibly be having a better time on the Mt. Carroll stage ... which, in Buddy, puts him in line with about 20 others.
No matter what you did over the last two-and-a-half months, I can't imagine that anyone enjoyed themselves more than the Timber Lake talents recruited by artistic director Brad Lyons. (If any of them weren't having a blast, they're even better actors than I thought.) In my recent Dirty Rotten Scoundrels review, I gave the company a preemptive farewell salute, partly because I don't particularly like Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, and worried that my problems with the show might hinder my enjoyment of its performers. I needn't have worried. There's so much joy, skill, and go-for-broke enthusiasm in director Lili-Anne Brown's production that it's all but irresistible, even though its sound quality is oftentimes spotty, and the book scenes are kind of bogus, and the characters, as written, are less interesting than the actors playing them.
With roughly two dozen '50s hits on the agenda, no one is asking for much depth from Buddy; narrative and emotional complexities would likely just get in the way of our fun. I think I would've preferred it, however, if Janes and Bettinson didn't go quite so far in the opposite direction. Beyond the Crickets' too-cutesy sidekick comedy and the dialogue that too obviously portends Holly's plane-crash death, too many scenes here mirror real-life encounters yet still feel distractingly fraudulent. (Just because events are true - such as Holly's famed performance at Harlem's Apollo Theater - doesn't mean they'll necessarily play as true.) Unlike 1978's film version, this Buddy Holly Story is designed as a bio-musical sitcom, and while that's bound to be what many will love about it, it does leave some of us wondering, a bit, what all the Holly-inspired fuss is about.
Yet Froseth does a marvelous job of exploring the musician's passion and savvy with minimal help from his material, and all throughout Brown's presentation, fierce and focused actors deliver a rush of personality. Cheyenne Pinson is beautifully understated and slyly comical as Holly's wife, Maria Elena; Justin Verstraete offers a first-rate, wholly lived-in detailing of manager Hipockets Duncan; and John Chase is wonderfully resigned as record producer Norman Petty. There are exceptionally entertaining turns by Rod Lawrence (as an incredulous Apollo emcee), Karl Hamilton (a merrily outsize Big Bopper), and Luis Herrera (a rousing Ritchie Valens), plus gorgeous harmonies by the Apollo trio of Sharriese Y. Hamilton, Katherine Thomas, and Jamila Turner.
Despite their Crickets being stuck with some clunky ba-dum-ching! yuks, Michael Gothard, Kenston Rider, and Courtney Crouse - in a welcome Timber Lake return - are splendid musicians and nimble funnymen, while Elisa Carlson provides dry-comic wit to match her expert piano skills. And amidst a stellar ensemble that includes this season's happily familiar Carl Hendin, Amanda Hendricks, and Thomas Stewart, the ever-magical Samantha Dubina (like Crouse, returning for the first time since 2007) delivers what is, hands down, the most hysterical take on "The Star-Spangled Banner" I've ever heard. And that's counting "Bleeding Gums" Murphy's rendition on The Simpsons.
Lovingly imagined by scenic designer Stephen D. English, costumer Leah Dueno, lighting designer Brian Hoehne, and choreographer Andrew Parker Greenwood, Holly and company's hits are given visual style to match their aural pep, and Timber Lake's Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story - which completely earned Friday's ecstatic standing ovation - handily transcends the script's limitations. It's also a fitting end to an absolutely remarkable 2009 season, and, sadly, to Lyons' 12-year tenure as artistic director. With the gifted James Beaudry taking over next summer, the theatre will no doubt remain in excellent shape, but Lyons will still be sorely missed as he embarks on his new career as a theatre and English teacher. Those kids don't know how lucky they are. But I'm betting they soon will.
For tickets and information, call (815)244-2035 or visit TimberLakePlayhouse.org.