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The jukebox musical has brought to theatrical stages the songs of Frank Sinatra, Janis Joplin and even Appalachian coal miners. It's fairly safe to say that among the sizable list of hits generated by the genre none has been as popular as long as Ted Swindley's “Always ... Patsy Cline.”
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre, which opens “Always ... Patsy Cline” on Sept. 9, is staging for the fourth time the two-woman show that features all of Cline's noted hits, including “Walking after Midnight,” “Crazy” and “Sweet Dreams.”
Fourteen years ago, then-Rep artistic director Cliff Baker brought the musical to Little Rock and the response was so strong that the company took the show on tour, brought it back the next season and then staged performances in Robinson Center Music Hall. Jessica Welch is playing the country singer for the Rep's 2009 production, which is directed by current artistic director Bob Hupp.
The “Always ... Patsy Cline” business has been so good for Welch that she estimates her total number of performances in the title role at a mind-boggling 3,000 plus.
“I was bored one afternoon in Detroit — can you imagine that? — and it was snowing and I sat down and started counting how many of these shows I have done,” says Welch. “I've done about 20 productions with countless different Louises.”
Welch is speaking of Louise Seger, a late real-life fan of Cline's who met the country siren before a concert at a Houston honky tonk. Seger invited Cline back to her home after the show in what turned out to be the beginning of a long-distance friendship that was cut short by Cline's death in a plane crash.
Jo Ann Robinson, who has appeared in a number of recent Rep productions, including the plum role of Blanche in “A Streetcar Named Desire,” is playing Louise for the first time.
“It's really a play about Louise and her story of Patsy Cline,” says Hupp. “We think of it as a show about Patsy Cline — and she has 28 great songs in it — but it's Louise's story.”
Can the cast or the director explain the phenomenal popularity of Swindley's little show, which started life as a short routine he put together for a fund-raiser?
“First of all, it's a true story,” says Hupp. “We think about Patsy Cline because of her amazing music and that she died young. That is certainly part of it. We never got to experience the backside of her career. And I think there's something too about [how] everybody would love to meet their idol. Back then, people like Patsy Cline climbed on an airplane and went out on their own. You don't see that today.”
Not surprisingly, the woman who plays Cline thinks it all comes back to the music.
“Part of my warm-up routine before a show is to listen to and sing with those recordings to get my voice in tune with hers,” says Welch. “I have to say those recordings are humbling. They are timeless.”
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