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‘Always … Patsy Cline'
The Rep, Sept. 10
It's hard to believe that it's been almost 50 years since country singer Patsy Cline died at the age of 30 in a plane crash in a Tennessee forest. One has to wonder if the collective memory of Cline — and her small but significant contribution to country music — has started to fade over the years. For instance, most of Taylor Swift's army of fans were born well after “Sweet Dreams,” the 1985 Cline bio pic staring Jessica Lange, even made it to movie screens.
So “Always ... Patsy Cline,” the wildly successful jukebox musical by Ted Swindley, serves as both a reminder of the brightness of Cline's brief life as well as a primer for those who've never been graced with her music. The Arkansas Repertory Theatre's new production, which kicks off the 2009-10 season for the state's premier theater company, is a more rollicking and freewheeling take than when it was staged at the Rep some 15 years ago. The live band, called the Bodadious Bobcats, with six members and all wearing cowboy hats, and the vocal channeling of Cline by Jessica Welch are the focal points for over two hours of torch, twang and laughs.
Swindley's play, based on the true story of the friendship that develops between Cline and fan Louise Seger (played by Rep vet Jo Ann Robinson), is deceptively simple. Twenty-eight songs — including of course Cline's signature tunes “Walkin' After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” and “Crazy” — are spliced together with Seger's recollection of hearing Cline on TV's “The Arthur Godfrey Show” and then meeting and befriending her before a show at Houston's Esquire Ballroom.
Director Bob Hupp gives Robinson, who sports a red wig that's none too subtle, plenty of latitude to joke and play around with the audience as she bops around the stage. Robinson has experience as an improv comic and she shows it off teasing certain recalcitrant members of the crowd about their Baptist leanings. On a Thursday night preview performance Robinson's thick Southern accent wavered and wobbled before finally settling down toward the end. If you don't like hearing the word sing as “sang,” you've been warned.
Still, Robinson does have her fun (and, toward the end, tears) and Swindley's show is warm and gently funny without being heavy-handed (the line that stuck out was Seger's approval of Cline: “Why she was just as much us as we were!”). Maybe the biggest surprise is that Swindley is able to convey how much these two women truly liked each other and how sad the abrupt end to Cline's life was.
The star of the show is Welch's voice and though it might not be a dead ringer for Cline's it's as close as one could imagine. Thanks to the many costumes of Marianne Custer, Welch never steps on the stage without looking like a million bucks. “Always ... Patsy Cline” doesn't make a case for Cline forever changing country music (and really it was likely her famed producer Owen Bradley who is more responsible), which is a good thing. The little musical is content not to take itself too seriously and, most importantly, to get out of the way and let the lady sing the hell out of the songs. And she does.