It wasn’t until a medley in the second act of “Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story” that it occurred to me: “Son of a gun. This is a jukebox musical.”
I say this as a person who has only fully embraced one of those compilation shows, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” and whose reaction to the others is inevitably: “Enough with the hurried ‘story.’ I just want to go home and listen to the real people singing these great songs.”
But that was not my reaction to the crowd-pleasing — actually, at my performance, crowd-loving — revival of “Teen Idol” at the History Theatre, and a huge reason I enjoyed it so much is Tyler Michaels in the title role.
It is no surprise that Michaels, whose memorable parts include Freddie in the Guthrie’s “My Fair Lady” and Tony in the Ordway’s “West Side Story,” possesses one of the most powerful voices in town or that his onstage persona is likable and unironic. Both qualities work beautifully for Vee, a Fargo 15-year-old plucked from obscurity to front a band at a concert that needed a last-minute replacement for Buddy Holly when Mr. That’ll Be the Day was killed in a 1959 Iowa plane crash.
Michaels’ skill is evident in the transformation that happens during Vee’s first number at the concert, “Wake Up Little Susie.” The Everly Brothers hit gives Michaels two minutes to shift imperceptibly from a jittery, stiff teenager who is just barely hitting the notes to a charismatic rock star with a hiccupy growl of a voice, and Michaels nails it.
The set features a downstage platform that many actors use during their solos, but Michaels is the only one who fully owns that space. That’s less a reflection on the large, talented cast (and the versatile, four-person band) than the fact that most get only a minute to make an impression before they switch to other roles in this very busy show.
John Jamison II’s “Hurts So Bad” is a soulful stunner, as is “Mama Said,” led by Lynnea Doublette. And has anyone anywhere ever heard the kick-kick-kick-snare that introduces the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and not immediately thrilled to the knowledge of the masterpiece to come?
For the most part, the book scenes gracefully navigate Vee’s incident-packed life, ending with a sad/sweet coda that brings us up to date (the singer died two years ago of complications from Alzheimer’s disease, just weeks after this musical had its premiere).
I would quibble about whether the show needs to pack in three dozen musical numbers, which make the second act less like musical theater and more like “Hullabaloo.” As the hits keep coming and as Jan Puffer’s exuberant choreography tracks the shift from the Pony to the Mashed Potato to the Twist, the show occasionally sags, but it’s tough to argue with the instinct to make room for songs such as Del Shannon’s “Runaway” or Dion’s “The Wanderer.” They make a case that Mae West was right when she said too much of a good thing can be wonderful.