Monday, October 10, 2016

"Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story" at the History Theatre

Friends, I think the History Theatre has another hit on their hands. After the huge success of last fall's new original musical Glensheen, which received a second run and an Ivey award this year, they follow in the footsteps of the proven success of Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story with Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story. In a way, this story picks up where that story left off. Bobby Vee's career was born on the day the music died. But this new musical (or rather play with music if you want to get technical about it, and I do*) doesn't just rest on the nostalgia of baby boomers, who, let's face it, would come see the show no matter how good it was just to hear these great old hits of the '60s. Teen Idol is more than just a string of familiar hits, it's a well written and extremely satisfying play with music that tells the story of Bobby Vee's life, music, family, and rise to and fall from fame. Kind of like a cleaner version of Jersey Boys (Fargo ND is far from New Jersey and not just in geography). Featuring a star performance by Tyler Michaels, who continues to impress with his range of talents and characters, and an incredibly strong ensemble chock full of local talent, who all get their moment to shine, Teen Idol is a fantastic show no matter your generation.

The show begins on the day the music died. In the wake of the tragic plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper on their way to play a gig in Fargo, 15-year-old Bobby Velline makes his public debut singing in a band with his older brother and a few friends. They soon started playing gigs around the state, score a radio hit with their recording of Bobby's song "Suzie Baby," and the rest is rock and roll history. We watch Bobby's continually rising success, his marriage to local girl Karen, their move to LA, and his friendship with other musicians such as The Shirelles and Del Shannon. But then things take a turn when the early '60s gives way to the late '60s, music changes, the British invade, and the hits stop coming. Bobby and Karen decide to move home to Minnesota and live a quieter life away from the spotlight, raising their family, but still involved with music. Bobby Vee's stardom may have been a quick rise and fall within ten years, but a happy and successful life and family continued far beyond that. It's refreshing to see a rock and roll story that doesn't end in tragedy, especially when fame came at such a young age.

The play (written by Bob Beverage) does wonderful credit to Bobby Vee's life and family, but if I'm being nitpicky, there are a couple of threads left hanging. One scene shows the beautiful integration of black and white musicians on Dick Clark's Caravan of the Stars tour, and Bobby's shock at the racism they face in some of the small towns they visit, but the issue is never brought up again. We see Bobby's mother and brother suffering from depression, but their stories also are never really resolved. But those are minor issues in a play that tries to cover the totality of a life and family.

Tyler Michaels as Bobby Vee
(photo by Rick Spaulding)
Tyler Michaels is the perfect person to embody Bobby's magnetic stage presence, winning smile, kindness, smooth crooning voice, and early '60s pompadour. He has the audience in the palm of his hand from the moment he takes to the mic to sing "Wake Up Little Suzie" on that fateful day. Tyler not only brings these classic songs (including "Devil or Angel," "Rubber Ball," and "The Night Has a Thousand Eyes") to life, but he also gives heart and soul to the character of Bobby. Near the end of the show he passes the reins to Tod Peterson (who also brings his wit and charm to multiple other roles before that point), who takes Bobby into his older years and diagnosis with Alzheimer's. There's a moment at the end of the show when Tod's Bobby wears the same sweater and tries to learn the same song as Tyler's Bobby does at the beginning of the show. It's a beautiful moment of symmetry, and makes it even easier to believe that Tyler Michaels grows up to be Tod Peterson.

I saw Teen Idol in the middle of a five-show weekend so I didn't have time to read much about the show, or even look at the program before the show started. So I was pleasantly surprised when each new actor came onstage, especially when the talent just kept coming. Tyler Michaels may be the star but Teen Idol is a true ensemble piece, in the fullest and best definition of the word. Everyone gets their moment in the spotlight and it's so much fun to see. We have Ben Bakken, wowing the crowd with "Runaway" and bringing poignancy to Del Shannon's tragic story. We have Josh Carson 
(who the History Theatre happily seems to have on call for comic relief rolesinjecting humor in several roles including Bobby's manager Snuffy. We have Peter Middlecamp, man of many hairstyles and accents (including Minnesota's most beloved radio man Charlie Boone). We have little scene-stealer Dora Dolphin (
growing up before our eyes and only getting more charming and talented) as a young contest winner. We have Eleonore Dendy as Karen who is more than just Bobby's wife, and the always wonderful Charity Jones as the older Karen and a number of other roles. Matthew Rubbelke, Jordan Oxborough, Kasono Mwanza, the list just goes on and on in an embarrassment of riches!

the gorgeous and talented cast of Teen Idol
(photo by Rick Spaulding)
A big draw of this show is the music, and it doesn't disappoint. But instead of forcing the songs into the characters' mouths to sing to each other as in a jukebox musical like Mamma Mia, Teen Idol is structured as a play with music*, with most of the songs sung in context - a concert, rehearsal, studio, or music video (with a live camera projecting images on the back wall of the stage to super cool effect). A couple of exceptions are when Bobby sings "Run to Him" to his soon to be bride, and a sort of dream date sequence to "Come Back When You Grow Up," and both work well and are quite charming.

I knew more songs that I thought I would, because these hits are part of the fabric of our culture, whether we're aware of it or not. And this cast, several of whom also double as band members, really bring these songs to vibrant life under the music direction of George Maurer. Choreographer Jan Puffer recreates the classic '60s dance moves in such a fun and fresh way it makes you want to get up out of your seat and do the twist! The music and dance highlight of the show is Dick Clark's Caravan of the Stars tour, in which Bobby and a dozen other musicians travel by bus. They all sing their own and each other's songs, like a precursor to Carpool Karaoke, and it's great fun. All of this happens on Rick Polenek's fun and versatile set, with a raised stage area and oversized records that function as tables and platforms for performances. Costume designer Kathy Kohl clads the characters in clean cut early '60s sweaters and skirts, transitions to the bell-bottoms of the late '60s and '70s. Last but not least and pulling it all together is director Ron Peluso, who keeps the show running smoothly, utilizing all parts of the stage and audience, with a nice balance between fun musical moments and poignant family drama.

Eleonore Dendy and Tyler Michaels as
Karen and Bobby (photo by Rick Spaulding)
Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story is a fantastic new play with music that's both fun and satisfying for the baby boomer set (I brought my parents, who are about Bobby Vee's age, and they loved it), and also hugely successful as a piece of theater. It's a Minnesota story and also an American story. I think Teen Idol has a long life ahead, but in the meantime don't miss this production featuring star turns by Tyler Michaels and just about every person in the large ensemble. Playing just through the end of the month, this one's gonna go fast, so get your tickets now!

*The Cherry and Spoon Music-Theater Spectrum (TM pending): in a musical, characters sing in character, expressing their emotions and moving the plot forward. In a play with music, the music takes place in context, with characters singing in a way that would make sense in real life, and don't sing as the character. If you take the music out of a play with music, it still makes sense, although some of the impact is lost. If you take the music out of a musical, the story no longer makes sense.