In the past decade, or so, there's been a relative dearth of good biopics about musicians. It used to be that playing a legendary artist in a movie usually resulted in acclaim, but that well has run dry. One might be able to trace this fading genre back to Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which parodied the cliches of these music biopics with such ruthless efficiency and accuracy that they've not yet been able to recover.
Walk Hard is a specter that hangs over all permutations of these stories, even on stage, which does no favors to productions like Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, currently being put up at the Tacoma Musical Playhouse. I'm no expert on Buddy Holly's life, but I doubt, for instance, that he fought so hard for individuality that he vowed not only to wear glasses onstage, but declared out-loud that he would purposefully wear even bigger glasses (a scene that actually happens in Buddy).
Another thing the show has going against it is that Holly didn't quite live long enough to have much of a story - after a whirlwind career of just 18 months, during which he recorded some of the most indelible rock of the ‘50s, Holly tragically died in an ill-timed plane crash. The details of Holly's death are sped through in Buddy, though getting more in depth would probably ring hollow in a show that mostly depicts a surface-level view of Holly's life, in favor of long stretches of performances of Holly's songs.
The performers give it their all, with many of the actors in Buddy required not only to sing, but to play instruments in service of songs that can be tricky ("Peggy Sue" and "Oh Boy," in particular, feature unforgiving tempos). At the center of the show, of course, is Buddy Holly, here played by Matt McClure. According to his bio, this is McClure's fourth time playing Holly, and it shows: that is a tough voice to get right, without leaning too much on the hiccuping and various affectations, and McClure nails it. Markus S. Kamp, Walter Harley, and Jake Atwood round out Holly's backing band, and they each get take full advantage of their moments in the spotlight, while Anthony Deleon and Erik Furuheim dazzle as Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper, respectively.
Holly's brief life is framed by various radio DJs across the country breathlessly updating us on his meteoric rise to success, his spontaneous marriage to Maria Elena (Deanna Martinez, very endearing), and his sudden passing. One sequence recounting Holly burning up the charts betrays the play's origin in the ‘80s: after hearing from DJs from Texas, New York, and the UK, we land on a DJ from San Francisco, where the entire joke is that he's flamboyantly gay. It's a sour note in an otherwise pleasant play.
Sporting over 20 Buddy Holly songs, the show works well as a revue, and will appeal to casual fans of Holly. Glimpses into his creative process, like a delicate scene depicting the one-take recording of "Everyday," are the most rewarding bits of the show, but they're few and far between.
Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m., Sunday through Feb. 26, $22-$31, Tacoma Musical Playhouse, 7116 6th Ave., Tacoma, 253.565.6867, tmp.org