ALWAYS … PATSY CLINE (Walnut): Crazy for this show

Excerpted by kind permission from Neals Paper

Ted Swindley’s blend of a heartwarming bonding of two good ole’ gals and more than two dozen songs associated with singer Patsy Cline can stay in production forever and never wear out its welcome. Swindley’s book is a well-concocted combination of country kitsch and zingy one-liners while Cline’s hits — “Crazy,” “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Sweet Dreams” — and covers — “You Belong to Me,” “Stupid Cupid,” “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” — go beyond jukebox formula to being a welcome and genuine concert.

The important thing with this show is never to get too gushy or too reverent. Blessedly, Debi Marcucci’s production at the Walnut gets the proportion and sensibility just right. She keeps her show down-to-earth, so you can enjoy Patsy’s prodigious talent, as displayed by the marvelous Jenny Lee Stern, as well as the simplicity and warmth of the kismet relationship Miss Cline forms with a fan, Louise, played with merry grit by the always-reliable Denise Whelan.

Whelan sets the tone of the show by being outgoing, pro-active, and aggressively friendly. She personifies the chorus of Patsy’s song that says to “come on in, sit right down, and make yourself at home.” Whelan’s approach is inviting, not only in terms of introducing you to Louise’s household and marital situation — blissfully divorced — but in making you feel she’s telling her story specifically to you.

Louise is an early and avid Patsy Cline fan. She talks about how she casually listens when she parks her kids in front of the TV but stops everything when she hears Patsy singing “Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round” and other tunes on “The Arthur Godfrey Show.” Patsy’s voice haunts her, and she advocates for Patsy by calling the local Houston country deejay and demanding he plays her favorite sides at least once per hour. Louise dominates while Stern’s Patsy pops over to the bandstand mike to the numbers Louise craves to hear.

Photo by Mark Garvin.
Photo by Mark Garvin.

The tide turns when the deejay informs Louise that Patsy is coming to Houston and will be playing a barn of a roadhouse the coming Friday night. Louise rallies her boyfriend, her boss, and his girlfriend and arrives at 6:30 for a 9 p.m. set, which in the live music world often means 10. As Louise’s party waits patiently, and Louise turns on the personality to keep them from choking her, a woman is seen taking the measure of the venue, eventually sitting alone to smoke a cigarette and take in the ambience, or lack of it. Louise recognizes her as Patsy Cline, goes to have a chat, and friendship begins.

The irony is we know the friendship will not be long-lived. We see Patsy’s career ascend as she and Louise correspond by mail. Patsy’s missives are especially intimate and insightful as if she has found in Louise a sympathetic sounding board for her marital woes, career decisions, and other personal matters.

ALWAYS … PATSY CLINE is only incidentally comic. Its jokes are conversational and internal. They’re meant to make the book breeze by rather as a raison d’etre for the show. Of course, the numbers are reason enough for doing this show and why I say it would find constant audiences if ran forever. Stern’s background includes stints in “Forbidden Broadway” in which she would have to parody famous performers and catch that trick of voice of facial expression that bring the comedy home.

Stern doesn’t make a fetish of channeling Patsy. She sings her songs with the passion, hurt, and vocal dexterity that marked her performances and keeps her a lasting favorite. Stern is an entertainer first. She has the voice and the presence to command your attention. That’s she singing songs from Patsy’s oeuvre is the bonus,

Whelan, even in loud outfits and exuding a big personality, is down-home affable as Louise. We like her bigness and the way she dogs the deejay into doing her om-air bidding, a favor she will reward by bringing Patsy to his radio show as a surprise live guest. We enjoy her what-the-heck attitude about her life, her support of Patsy, and the way she stands for millions of people who get by content with their lot as they make the best of any situation.

Glen Sears’s set is a wonderful amalgamation of 50’s kitchen, complete with step stools, wall telephones, and beaded fruit so familiar in numerous homes, and bandstand, where Stern stations herself to deliver Patsy’s ballads and chart-busters. Mark Mariani’s costumes suit the period, and he did a fine job with the cowgirl outfits Ms. Cline’s mother sewed for her and the sophisticated dresses Patsy would later wear. I wish Mariani had been given permission to give Louise the clothes she describes. They’re unnecessary because Louise is narrating a story from her past, but it would have fun to see some of the blouses and boots she has us picture. John Kolbinski’s sound design was aces. For once, mikes were not set too hot, so Whelan and Stern could sound natural, and the music sounded as live as it was.

Stern is well accompanied by Bill Thompson and Spiff Wiegand, who can coax his guitar synthesizer into any instrument or sound he needs it to be. Luckily, we also get to hear Whelan sing. Read the full review on Neals Paper >>>

[Independence Studio on 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 825 Walnut Street] April 5-July 3, 2016;

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