Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story
History Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Kit's recent review of Stomp and Arty's recent reviews of Cabaret, Pericles, The Kalevala, and Jitney


Tyler Michaels and Cast
Photo by Rick Spaulding
The title Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story, a new musical in a world premiere production at History Theatre, pretty much states what the show is about. History Theatre has often drawn upon the lives of historic and cultural figures associated with Minnesota, from Charles Lindbergh to Judy Garland, from Sister Elizabeth Kenny to Garrison Keillor. Bob Beverage, who wrote Sisters of Swing, History Theatre's hugely popular show about native daughters The Andrew Sisters, taps into Minnesota's musical output again with Teen Idol, which he created in collaboration with Mr. Vee's sons Jeff and Tommy Vee.

The result is a highly enjoyable show. Just how highly depends in part on how much nostalgia one has for 1960s rock and roll hits. We are not talking about rhythm 'n' blues-driven rock, or LSD fueled acid rock, but soft rock pop sounds, like the acres of hits churned out by Carole King. In fact, Vee's best known hit, "Take Good Care of My Baby" (#1 in September, 1961), was written by King with Gerry Goffin. In addition to Bobby Vee, reincarnations of Del Shannon, Little Anthony and the Imperials, The Ronettes, Dion and the Belmonts, Johnny Burnette, and Chubby Checker perform their hits.

The other reason for enjoying Teen Idol is the care with which its parts have been assembled, including brisk and fluid staging by Ron Peluso and choreography by Jan Puffer, strong design elements, and great performances in the lead roles, especially Tyler Michaels as Bobby Vee, and Tod Peterson as Bobby's dad, Arnie the manager who nurtured Vee's career from its start, and, late in the show, as Bobby in his autumnal years.

Teen Idol also offers proof there were interesting and successful show biz lives (at least one) that did not lead to drug or alcohol addiction, promiscuity, loss of family and old friends, or other stereotypes of the celebrity bio-play. Bobby had a loving, healthy marriage to his wife Karen who was a rock of support to him. The two met in 1959 when Bobby was just 16 and wed in 1963, a marriage that lasted until her death last year. Granted, the script may not delve into every nook of Bobby's life, especially as two of his sons co-authored the work, but the basics square pretty much with what is known to be true.

we meet Bobby (born in 1943 as Robert Velline) as a fifteen-year-old guitar-playing kid with a paper route in Fargo, North Dakota. He persuades his older brother Bill to let him sing with a band Bill and a couple of his friends had formed. Their shot at fame comes as last minute fillers at the Winter Dance Party in nearby Moorhead, Minnesota, for Buddy Holly, The Big Bopper, and Richie Valens, who were killed in a well-known plane crash en route to that show. The band, hastily named The Shadows, was well received—especially Bobby's voice, honey smooth with a touch of Buddy Holly's throaty mischief.

Under the tutelage of manager Arnie, a recording contract leads to their first locally big hit, "Suzie Baby," recorded in Minneapolis. Before long, it is just Bobby the producers want, and his career goes into high gear with a string of hits, fan clubs composed of star-crazed girls, appearances at leading clubs and halls, international tours, and a home in Los Angeles. In time, he tires of performing other people's words and feelings. He wants to veer to a new direction, to perform songs he wrote himself that reflect his own views and life experience. When Bobby's new approach fails to find an audience, his bank account is depleted from investing in his new sound and helping his struggling brothers and friends, and he and Karen decide to move back home, settling in central Minnesota, where they remain for the rest of their lives, Bobby performing in rock-revival shows and festivals. In 2011, he was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's, prompting his retirement.

In 1963, Bobby joins the Dick Clark famed Caravan of Stars, a pop music festival travelling the south, stirring controversy with an integrated troupe of rock and roll stars travelling together, trying to eat at the same cafĂ© or lodge at the same hotel. The troupe was in Dallas the day President Kennedy was assassinated, giving that historical touchstone a place in the show. Bobby is consistently seen providing support to his troubled brothers and friends. His care for others is borne out by a tribute from none other than Bob Dylan who, as an unknown musician in summer 1959, had played with The Shadows. At a 2013 concert he said "I've played all over the world with all kinds of people ... but the most beautiful person I've ever been on stage with is Bobby Vee," before singing Vee's first hit, "Suzie Baby."

More about Tyler Michaels' performance as Bobby Vee: The man has it all. He sings beautifully, moves with lithe grace (though can also play a dance-impaired teenager), and expresses emotions with utter purity. The transition to Tod Peterson as the older Bobby is a novel choice that works well, with enough similarity in the personas of Bobby the two actors create to make the transition smooth and believable. The teen idol Bobby maintained that image, not through vanity, abetted by the devotion of his fans, for many years, but eventually time catches up and Bobby is a middle-aged man with a paunch.

Karen is also played by two actresses. Eleonore Dendy plays her as a confident, positive-natured young woman, able to deal with Bobby's celebrity with feet on the ground as she maintains a stable home that served him and their four children so well. Charity Jones becomes Karen in maturity, successful in a career as a marriage therapist, who shoulders medical setbacks that both she and Bobby suffer. Both actors do fine work, but their transition feels not quite organic, as Dendy and Jones project different energy levels—Dendy more laid back, Jones more focused and ready for action. The rest of the cast are fine, with Josh Carson especially good as Snuffy Garrett, the record producer instrumental in Bobby's success, and Matthew Rubbelke moving as Bobby's older brother Bill who suffered from depression.

And then, the music, which, for many in the audience is probably what really matters. For those who remember, hearing those songs is a festive trip through time, but even those with, at best, a sketchy familiarity with the oldies, seemed caught by their musical hooks, in part thanks to George Maurer's great arrangements and a rocking band led by Nic Delcambre. Bobby Vee's songs include "Devil or Angel," "Run to Him," "Rubber Ball," "Come Back When You Grow Up Girl," "More Than I Can Say," "The Night Has a Thousand Ears," and, inevitably, "Take Good Care of My Baby." We also are treated to hits of other stars such as "Dreamin'," "Let's Twist Again, "Be My Baby," "Mama Said," "Run Around Sue," "Hurts So Bad," and "Wake Up, Little Susie." Still, even with all this music, Teen Idol is a genuine book show, not just an oldies review.

Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story works on all cylinders—a strong cast, with Tyler Michaels fabulous in the lead, well-honed staging and design, a book that holds interest and tells a story that is more heartwarming than heart-fending, and that great, great, great music. It is certainly worth a spin on the turntable.

Teen Idol: The Bobby Vee Story continues at History Theatre through October 30, 2016. 30 East 10th Street, Saint Paul, MN, 55102. Tickets from $25.00 - $45.00; senior (age 60+) discount available; student tickets $15.00 for all seats. For tickets call 651-292-4323 or go to www.historytheatre.com.

Writer: Bob Beverage in collaboration with Jeff and Tommy Vee; Director: Ron Peluso; Music Director: George Maurer; Assistant Music Director: Nic Delcambre; Choreographer: Jan Puffer; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Kathy Kohl; Lighting Design: Barry Browning; Sound Designer: C. Andrew Mayer; Properties Kirby Moore: Lisa Conley; Scenic Artist: Dee Skogen; Production/Stage Manager: Wayne Hendricks; Assistant Stage Managers: Lisa M. Smith, Mary Farrell, Haley Walsh.

Cast: Ben Bakken (Jim Stillman, Del Shannon), ShaVunda Brown (Shirley Owens), Josh Carson (Snuffy), Bowen Cochrane (Dion, Bob Dylan, Leonard Nimoy), Eleonore Dendy (Karen Bergen), Peyton Dixon (Eddie, Bobby Freeman), Otto Dregni (Ronny Kerber, Jeffrey), Dora Dolphin (Hope Landsford), Olivia Hedeman (Late Girl, Dancer), Kayla Jenerson (Ronnie Bennett), Jamila Joiner (Nurse), Charity Jones (Mom, Teacher, Mature Karen), Peter Middlecamp (Charlie Boone, Johnny Burnette), Kasono Mwanza (Little Anthony), Jordan Oxborough (Junior, Dick Clark, Freddie Canon), Tod Peterson (Dad, Bing, Arnie, Mature Bobby), Geoffrey Randall (Bob Korum, Jerome), Matthew Rubbelke (Bill Velline), Kenny Watson (Chubby Checker). Ensemble: Anna Beth Baker, Michael Brown, Caitlyn Daniels, Leslie Vincent

Band, also play in cast: Nic Delcambre (music director, keyboards), Mitchell Benson (bass), Blake Foster (guitar), Riley Jacobson (drums).


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