Jessica Wagner brings astounding authenticity to the title role in Bristol Riverside Theatre’s production of ALWAYS… PATSY CLINE. Wagner finds the catch in Cline’s voice that makes it special as well as the singer’s lilting phrasing and infallible sincerity. We know immediately why Louise (Jo Twiss), bolts upright and listens intently as Cline’s voice comes from a television two rooms away. Wagner also fits our visual image of Patsy Cline, wearing a red cowgirl dress festooned with stringy white fringe wittily designed by Linda B. Stockton. Like Louise, we are taken with all we hear and become avid Patsy Cline fans.
Ted Swindley’s story is about the friendship Louise and Patsy form after a Cline appearance in Houston, but singing is the crux of the play. Whether Patsy is performing one of her own hits or covering other popular songs from her time, such as Jo Stafford’s “You Belong to Me” or Connie Francis’s “Stupid Cupid,” you long to hear her to go on. ALWAYS… PATSY CLINE is amiable as a play, but most of the Bristol audience would be just as happy with a concert. Susan D. Atkinson’s production is always lively and stays on the right side of being clichéd or corny, but it’s the moments when Wagner is at her mike or entertaining Louise that the show soars.
Although the sad facts of Patsy’s marriage and difficult personal life are alluded to by Louise, who mentions the two shared their marital woes, ALWAYS… PATSY CLINE is more about a relationship a star was able to form with a fan than a full biography of the singer. Twiss makes Louise into a redneck raconteuse, the kind of woman who would have both the conviviality and the nerve to turn a lonely performer to a friend.
Cline is a natural subject for the theater. She was one of the first country stars whose music also scored high on pop music charts, and she built a large, diverse audience that was as shocked as Twiss’s Louise to hear that Patsy was killed in a plane crash in 1963. “I Fall to Pieces,” “Walkin’ After Midnight,” and “Crazy” continue to loom large as public favorites.
That music is a constant delight. Ryan Touhey and his band — Nero Catalano, Bob Gargiulio, Kathy Goff, and Neil Nemetz — add to the musical bonanza with their lively and thoughtful introductions, vamps, and accompaniment. Touhey is sensitive to Wagner’s tempo and phrasing and enhances the singer’s already impressive talent.
Elizabeth Atkinson pitched the sound just right, so that Wagner’s live sound came through any amplification. Cory Pattak’s lighting spotlights Wagner well, and I especially liked the use of the mirrored ball in the club scenes. Set designer Adam Koch shows the expanse of the Houston club where Patsy is playing while also capturing the intimacy of Louise’s kitchen.
Ted Swindley’s book is fairly typical and holds no surprises, but Twiss and Wagner play it with sincerity, and Twiss makes sure all of the non-musical segments move well and entertainingly. Read the full review on NealsPaper. [Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pa.] January 27-February 22, 2015; brtstage.org.