Vintage Rock ‘n’ Roll

By a stroke of sheer coincidence, I was able to attend two performances this week that took me back to an era of early rock ‘n’ roll.

The first performance was Memphis the Musical, now playing at the Des Moines Civic Center. Memphis is the 2010 Tony Award winner for best musical and best original score. And from the looks of the promotional photos, it was one hot musical.

But, in reality, not so hot. The story of the white radio DJ in the 1950s who falls in love with the gospel and rhythm-and-blues sound of the black community – and also falls in love with a young, up-and-coming black singer – left me fairly cold. I kept thinking that somehow it should have been better, more meaningful. I didn’t find myself caring much about any of the characters, and while the music and dancing were very good, there wasn’t anything that, as the show says, “touched my soul.” The story was weak, and the music just couldn’t lift the show to a higher level.

Last night I attended a much smaller (much less expensive) show: “Rave On!”, a tribute to Buddy Holly at the Des Moines Playhouse. It had me up on my feet. In fact, it had everyone in the theater (and, mind you, the median age of the audience was 65) on their feet.

“Rave On!” stars Billy McGuigan as Buddy Holly, backed by the excellent six-piece Rave On Band. Unlike The Buddy Holly Story, a musical I’ve seen three times, “Rave On!” is not bogged down by a story line. It’s just pure fun and hand-clapping rock ‘n’ roll. McGuigan and the band performed every Buddy Holly song I’ve ever heard, and then some. Toward the end of the show, they did a rocking medley of the top songs from Holly’s era – songs by Elvis Presley, The Big Bopper, Ritchie Valens, The Everly Brothers, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Chuck Berry. And everyone sang along to  Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

It was a whole lot more fun than Memphis.

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