“Teen Idol,” the History Theatre’s latest foray into rock ’n’ roll history, has a lot to like, from the Midwestern charm of its central character — ’60s heartthrob Bobby Vee — to plenty of joyful pop hits and terrific performances.
It also takes a kitchen sink approach to storytelling, jamming the show with so much story and so many songs that it sometimes loses focus on the man it’s about. In the end, Vee’s winning story and the sometimes bright staging wins the day.
The musical follows Bobby Vee (born Velline) from his early days in Fargo through his years of pop stardom with such hits as “Devil or Angel” and “Take Good Care of My Baby.” Along the way, his story intertwines with musical and American history. He makes his big debut subbing for Buddy Holly the day after the music died. There are run-ins with pre-fame Bob Dylan and Leonard Nimoy. He’s in Dallas when President John F. Kennedy is shot.
Writer Bob Beverage tries to balance Vee’s larger-than-life adventures with the day-to-day reality he faces once his pop stardom fades. The script presents so many facts and events that it threatens to overwhelm the main story.
Once the hits stop, Vee doesn’t spiral into addiction or anger or depression. Instead, he sticks it out on the road to keep providing for his wife and children. And when California becomes too much, his family moves back to Minnesota — and he finds a late-career renaissance on the nostalgia circuit before Alzheimer’s forces him to retire.
Solid performances fuel the show. Tyler Michaels continues his years-long hot streak as Vee, showcasing both the naive young man and the more weary, post-success singer. The changes are subtle (a change in posture or even hairstyle) but work wonders.
As Vee’s troubled friend Del Shannon, Ben Bakken shows us a more typical falling rock star. On the home front, Eleonore Dendy keeps the show grounded as Vee’s soul mate, Karen. Later in the show, Tod Petersen and Charity Jones take over the older versions of Bobby and Karen. It’s jarring at first, but the pair easily slip into Michaels’ and Dendy’s shoes.
Last year the History Theatre tackled another bit of Midwest rock lore with “River Road Boogie,” about pioneering Twin Cities rocker Augie Garcia. This show, directed by the theater’s artistic director, Ron Peluso, offers plenty of great songs from the late 1950s and early ’60s, but the presentation — mainly characters “on stage,” singing — wears thin.
The musical works best when it breaks free of the confines of the concert format and moves to something more like musical theater. In the second act, Vee and a cadre of other pop stars touring with Dick Clark break out in a medley of their tunes while riding on a bus. Realistic? No, but the sheer joy of this moment is infectious, and provides a real emotional lift.
Ed Huyck is a Twin Cities theater critic.