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Always…Patsy Cline — Bristol Riverside Theatre

untitled (16)Jessica Wagner is downright astounding in the authenticity she brings to Bristol Riverside Theatre’s production of “Always…Patsy Cline.”

Wagner is so good, we know immediately why Louise, a Houston woman played by Jo Twiss, bolts upright and listens intently as Cline’s voice comes from a television two rooms away from where she’s sitting. Wailing “Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round,” Wagner finds the catch in Cline’s voice that makes it special as well as the singer’s lilting phrasing and infallible sincerity. When we see her, wearing a red cowgirl dress festooned with stringy white fringe wittily designed by Linda B. Stockton, the miracle is complete. Wagner fits our visual image of Patsy Cline as much as her voice satisfies our vocal memory. Like Louise, we are taken with all we hear and become avid Patsy Cline fans.

Singing is the crux of Ted Swindley’s play. As good as Twiss is as Louise, and that’s very good — very very good — and as appealing as Swindley’s story is about the friendship Louise and Patsy form after a Cline appearance in Houston, it’s the more than two dozen songs Wagner presents, at times with Twiss’s help, that gives “Always…Patsy Cline” its spark. 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” may be amiable as a play, but I bet most of the Bristol audience would have 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. Even in the rare moments when Wagner falters a bit, such as on the low notes that begin each verse of “I Fall to Pieces,” her voice has a luster and her presentation is mesmerizing. Swindley is generous about letting each tune be sung in its entirety, which provides a special treat. In Wagner’s capable hands, Patsy Cline becomes a Country Judy Garland, and Atkinson, BRT’s founding director, might consider a show about Judy if she wants to bring Wagner back to Bristol.

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 it is a full biography of the singer. Atkinson keeps the byplay between Patsy and Louise on a scale of sisterly camaraderie, and the result is warm. You see how grateful Patsy is to be regarded as another gal instead of as a star, and you see Louise change from admiring Patsy as a fan to getting to her own as a friend.

Cline is a natural subject for the theater, even in a play that emphasizes her music more than her homelife. 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. A CD of Cline’s hits accompanies me on most long road trips, and Cline tunes are heard everywhere from piano bars and concert halls to the background tracks in restaurants and other public places. Patsy Cline has become a performer for the ages, and the many songs in “Always…Patsy Cline” prove why.

With Wagner giving the musical portions such texture, and Twiss keeping Swindley’s script so much fun, Atkinson’s “Always…Patsy Cline” finds the right blend to keep an audience wanting to see more.

Jo Twiss revels in her role as the average woman, a divorcee, who gets her kids ready in the morning so she can go to work while looking forward to weekends when she can spend time with her boyfriend.

Decked out in blouses and pants that at times have clashing patterns, and keeping a large belt of 3″ diameter gold disks around her waist, big-haired Louise is a friendly ‘good old girl’ with an ear for fine singing. Once she hears Patsy Cline, she makes daily calls to a local deejay requesting Cline recordings. Twiss has a good time when Louise mimics the broadcaster and others in telling Louise’s story.

Twiss makes Louise into a redneck raconteuse who brightly regales the audience with all that happens in her office and personal life in between talking about and championing Patsy Cline. Her performance as the kind of woman who would have both the conviviality and the nerve to turn a lonely performer to a friend keeps the Bristol production moving congenially between Wagner’s numbers. When Wagner and Twiss have a brief conversation in Louise’s kitchen, the warmth and pleasantness of both women come through and shows how well Atkinson juxtaposed the two distinct parts of Swindley’s show into one flowing, fulfilling piece.

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 tempi and phrasing and enhances the singer’s already impressive talent.

Jessica Wagner embodies Patsy Cline. She has some fine dramatic moments, such as when she is looking wistfully around the Houston club in which she is to play. Just before Louise spots her and decides to talk to Patsy, Wagner shows the loneliness and vulnerability of the character while also conveying a woman who is confident she can fill what Louise describes as a big barn with music.

That music is a constant delight. Wagner, with a knack for getting to the heart of a song, is as adept with a ballad like “Sweet Dreams” as she is with a upbeat tune such as “Come On In” or a lament such as “She’s Got You.” She also wins with the hymn Patsy recorded, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” The variety of the music continually shows the versatility of Wagner’s vocals, and it would not surprise me if people wanted Jessica Wagner to record a CD after seeing her in this show.

Adam Koch shows the expanse of the Houston club where Patsy is playing while also capturing the intimacy of Louise’s kitchen. In addition to the red cowgirl outfit, Linda B. Stockton gives Patsy several impressive costumes, the most appealing being the pale pink suit she wears while checking out the Houston venue. The gold lamé dress Wagner changes into for her performance also stands out for its tastefulness and quality. Wagner moves well in Stockton’s 60s dresses, and her dancing enhances her performance in the club sequences.

Cory Pattak’s lighting spotlights Wagner well, and I especially liked the use of the mirrored ball in the club scenes. Elizabeth Atkinson pitched the sound just right, so that Wagner’s live sound came through any amplification.

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.

“Always…Patsy Cline” runs through Sunday, February 22, at the  Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. (On opening night, Susan Atkinson announced that “Always…Patsy Cline” has the biggest advance sale in BRT history.) Tickets range from $45 to $35 with discounts for students, children, and military personnel and can be obtained by calling 215-785-0100 or by visiting www.brtstage.org.

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