The American Heartland rocks The Buddy Holly Story.

Buddy Love 

The American Heartland rocks The Buddy Holly Story.

Here's a tip for decoding theater reviews: "Crowd-pleasing" is the critic's shorthand for "Everyone liked this stupid thing but me."

Not that pleasing a crowd is bad. It's just that reviewers tend to apply these particular words exclusively to works that aim low and score big, to lunkheaded shows that manage, despite their artlessness, to whip up crowds like whales come chumtime. "Crowd pleasing" is an insult leveled at both art and audience. As a put-down, it's snobbish; as praise, it's worse.

So let me be clear on two points. First, the American Heartland is tossing chum by the bucketful with its revival of The Buddy Holly Story. Second: This is excellent news.

The show's a class-A crowd pleaser guaran-damn-teed to make you hiccup the Holly songbook all the way home from Hallmark Land.

Especially if you abuse the American Heartland's bar. Especially if you invent a drinking game during the second act, imbibing each time someone makes portentous reference to the bad weather shuddering through Clear Lake, Iowa.

The script is silly, but the emphasis is on the music itself, which the cast re-creates with much of Holly's spirit. I say re-creates quite seriously: The show is rightly concerned with the act of creation, with the best scenes all involving studio work or stage performances. It's not just Holly's songcraft that compels us. It's the jittery freshness of his records, their confident uncertainty. The Crickets were figuring things out as they went, feeling around for what this music could be. Rock and roll hadn't yet settled as a form; had Holly lived, its ultimate boundaries might have been broader.

The show's achievement is the way it evokes that thrill of creation. Sure, "Peggy Sue" couldn't have come together as quickly as it does here, but there's joy in watching it form, even if the process is radically accelerated.

As Holly's Crickets, David Bendena and Ry Kincaid seem constantly pleased at the untrained racket they're making. Each enlivens his lines with hillbilly brio that's infectious but never a caricature, and they play great, loose, unsettled rock and roll. The lead is Wichita native John Mueller, who headlined this show a decade ago and has dedicated more of his professional life to Buddy than Holly himself ever had a chance to. His performance is no Vegas-style novelty act. Until the finale, he resists the urge to showboat, and his Holly is, in the dramatic scenes, fitful and almost unassuming. It's a life-sized performance, capturing the dreamy shyness of a bright, artistic Texan. Singing and playing the guitar, he's dead-on.

That doesn't mean we aren't treated to some showboats. As Ritchie Valens, Joel Kipper tears "La Bamba" a new asshole, and James Wright is fantastic as the Big Bopper. I'd love to hit the Red Balloon with these guys. And from nowhere, Tim Scott steals the last half-hour, killing as the possibly anachronistic and certainly neurotic master of ceremonies of that ill-starred Clear Lake concert. He seems to lunge off-script, and in his performance we feel the joy of unpredictable creation — just as we do tapping along to this show's muscled-up "Not Fade Away." In the improv world, creation is the whole point. An improv scene might not get anywhere, but the inspiration that spurred it, and the jokes dogpiling on top, offer pleasures as real as anything a writer might craft. The trick for the skilled improviser is to keep an idea going and growing, like a kid standing on a lakeshore winging rocks — how far can each one skip before sinking?

Few improv troupes offer long-form scenes; most rely instead on quick joke setups and charadelike party games. Because creation itself is the kick, the more difficult forms are often the most rewarding, and because few local companies attempt them, we settle for inspired gamesmanship.

Which is enough in the hands of Improv-Abilities, a talented troupe skipping its stones in the basement of Lucky Brewgrille on Saturday. There, the show has a charming hey-do-your-folks-know-we're-down-here? vibe; the group also hits the big(ish) time at the Improv out at Zona Rosa.

Saturday's show is billed "adults only," and although Improv-Abilities doesn't need to work blue to score laughs, the most memorable gags from its October throw-down flirted with obscenity. Playing "World's Worst," a game in which troupe members leap forward with things you'd never want to hear from someone in a profession chosen by the audience, the cast was tasked with gynecologist.

First joke: "Turn your head and cough."

Second: "I feel I should tell you that I don't have any arms."

October's show started a little slow but was raucous fun by the end. (As at Buddy, the bar's a help.) Most of the troupe bagged some laughs, but special mention must be made of Keith Curtis and Tommy Todd, who each have a sharper satiric edge than many local improvisers. Curtis is lanky, a little foppish, and resembles an indie-rock youth pastor; his characters tend toward a flinty self-regard funny to anyone who has done time in Johnson County. Todd is Curtis' opposite, a rambunctious Bad News Bears type with a look of stoned exasperation and licks of hair kicking up. He forgoes the easy joke in favor of a longer, funnier buildup.

But improv forces performers outside of their clear strengths, and the night's highlight arrived when Todd became — for reasons that made sense at the time — a gibberish-speaking Bill Cosby. The scene got nowhere, made little sense, and was nothing but delightful.


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