Always…Patsy Kline | Stages St. Louis

theat Grand-Ole-PatsyFrom “Walkin’ After Midnight” to the two encores, the big ones were all there, and were music to my ears.

 

 

theat Making-Music-Together

 

Patsy Cline is in town for most of the month of June, and she is a welcome sight indeed. Stages St. Louis has put away the canned music, and the spectacularly talented Lisa Campbell Albert gets to do more during the performance than “conduct” from the booth above the audience. She plays piano as the leader of the Bobcats, a house band whose “gimmick,” besides being a kick-ass group of versatile musicians and backup singers, is that they all have the middle name “Bob,” even “Bob Bob,” the drummer. Patsy calls them all “Hoss” anyway though (as the real Patsy Cline was wont to do).

Nobody—and I mean no body—now sings or ever sang like Cline. Jacqueline Petroccia makes her Stages debut in the role, and even she doesn’t hit Cline’s low lows and highest highs like the real artist. But I appreciate the fact that this isn’t a direct imitation of Cline; rather, it’s an homage in the singer’s style. Petroccia does demonstrate Cline’s minimal, sometimes almost awkward, gestures and says that she can’t read music and is never sure what key she sings best in. The show is packed with 27 songs Cline recorded during her brief 18 months of fame before dying in a plane crash at 30 in 1963. Cline still had to pay her dues, though, because she was on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, an ancestor of American Idol and its ilk, a few years before she broke through at the Grand Ole Opry in her hometown, Nashville.

Cline had a couple of kids, a troubled second marriage, and well, she didn’t just sing country songs; she lived them. (NB: Unlike nearly all contemporary country singers, she never wrote a note or a lyric, and her gift was to interpret others’ music. For example, Willie Nelson, who composed “Crazy,” was a short-haired guy in a suit in the 1950s when he cut a record of his version, but no one much cared. In Cline’s hands (and throat) it became huge, and her only top 20 crossover (from the country to the pop charts). It’s the song most identified with her, and the only one the audience applauded when she swung into it at Stages.

Ted Swindley, creator and original director of Always…Patsy Cline, first produced the show in Houston in 1988. He found an interview with local superfan Louise Seger (played here by Zoe Vonder Haar) describing her epistolary relationship with the down-to-earth singer after Cline performed at a Houston honkytonk bar. They swapped stories far into the night, and then Seger got her friend on a local radio program the following morning before she left for her next gig in Dallas. Seger got a letter from Cline a couple of weeks later, and they were constant pen pals and phone friends for the rest of the singer’s short life.

Louise narrates the story, which is punctuated by songs. The stage is Louise’s kitchen and living room with the band behind a scrim upstage left and a platform from which Patsy often sings upstage center (James Wolk has the design credit). It’s handy that there is a floor mike planted in Louise’s kitchen, and that her stove turns into a jukebox when the set becomes the roadhouse. Both women are equipped with head-worn personal microphones, and much of the time, it sounds like Louise’s is turned up too loud.

What you think of Louise overall probably depends on your taste in people. If you like big (metaphorically), bawdy, brassy broads, you’ll love Louise, and Vonder Haar embodies what apparently is the “real” Louise, because she is still alive and has seen the show. So if the representation was wrong, you’d think she’d say something. As for me, I am uncomfortable with this kind of person and the fact that she steals the spotlight from Pettroccia way too often with her hijinks: coming out in the audience to kiss the bald men, picking a dance partner and bringing him up onstage, and just generally being a hootin’, hollerin’ pain in the backside.

The audience around me adored her, though (and considering her 60-plus shows in 27 seasons with Stages, I think the regular audience considers her one of their own), and Vonder Haar is very talented. Another nit I need to pick is that it’s all so sanitized. According to a New York Times piece on the Broadway incarnations of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Colleen Dewhurst’s agent told her she was doing well, but he “couldn’t smell the booze.” Well, the same thing is true here: You can’t smell the Schlitz or the peanut shells in the sawdust. Swindley’s show could run for years, maybe decades, in Branson or Vegas, and it very well may, since it’s been touring for so long. Petroccia has herself played the role three previous times, and has won an award for the part.

Not much attention has been paid to historical or temporal verisimilitude here: The phone is too new, a mini-Kleenex box serves as a device for one song and they weren’t on the market yet, and if you really pay attention, there’s no way this much could have happened in one night that ended at 5 a.m. But, you know, it doesn’t matter, really, because I got what I wanted: A whole lot of Patsy. From “Walkin’ After Midnight” to the two encores winding up with “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey,” the big ones were all there, and were music to my ears. I especially love the bluegrass numbers like “Lovesick Blues,” in which Cline scoops down low, flies up high, and yodels the lyrics as much as sings them.

A lot of people will tell you they don’t like country music (or “Country Western,” as it used to be called, and is in this Texas-set show) but that they do like Patsy Cline and/or Willie Nelson. For me, these artists were a gateway drug to an art form that many don’t understand. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to mourning the greatest male singer of his generation (no genre label needed), George Jones. Y’all could go see Always…Patsy Cline, but it’s sold out. They added two performances, and they’re sold out, too. Audiences are happy to be there and happier when they leave, and that is what it’s all about in most musical theater. In that sense, Stages delivers with this season opener. | Andrea Braun

Additional credits: The Bobcats: John Higgins (pedal steel and acoustic guitar); Jon Ferber (electric and acoustic guitar); Kevin Buckley (fiddle); Vince Corkery (bass); and Don Drewett (drums). Direction and musical staging by Stages Artistic Director Michael Hamilton; Musical Director: Lisa Campbell Albert; Costumes: Lou Bird; Lighting Design: Matthew McCarthy

For information and to nag Jack Lane (at Louise’s behest—the actors never break character, even during the curtain call/encore) to restage the show so more people can see it, visit stagesstlouis.org.

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