All Things Entertaining and Cultural
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. Miss Cline and the woman who closely shares the last two years of her life have to be real and likeable. Sentimentality would make Swindley’s show corny and cloying. Overdoing would rob it of it charm and congeniality. Blessedly, Debi Marcucci’s production at the Walnut gets the proportion and sensibility just right. There are some moments of flashiness, but these are reserved for when Miss Cline is performing in swank rooms in Las Vegas. In general, Marcucci 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 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.
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. Louise’s narration, punctuated with Patsy’s songs, becomes a sisterly give-and-take that Whelan and Stern keep natural and touching. There’s some mildly dismissible hoo-hah about Louise renegotiating Patsy’s contract and guiding her pickup band, but mostly you see two women coming together over scrambled eggs, coffee, and cigarettes. Even Stern’s renditions of Patsy’s music take on a new intimacy as you hear them as through she’s singing to Louise.
The irony is we know the friendship will not be long-lived. As it is, Louise and Patsy meet in person that one time Patsy plays Houston and sleeps in Louise’s house. 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 she may not be able to share with managers, record executives, and tourmates.
You like seeing Stern and Whelan bonding. There’s true understanding and tenderness between the two. The dialogue at Louise’s kitchen table becomes as entertaining, if not as rousing or exciting, as the numbers Stern does at the bandstand.
Of course, those 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.
“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. Here, Stern has to use her talents more subtly. She never looks like Patsy Cline, her figure being too petite and her face being thin and heart-shaped, but she finds the stance in Patsy’s posture and the idiosyncrasies of her diction, e.g. when she sings “I fall to pie-cees” and similar Clineisms.
The good news is 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, She sets us all to singing over the days and weeks since seeing “Always” at the Walnut. My shower walls probably want to pull the plug, change the channel, or lift the needle at the eightieth warbling of “Crazy” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.” If they could be treated to Stern’s singing, they’d relegate the songs to their iStuff.
Stern not only has vocals. She has bounce. There’s a show biz spirt that guides her work. She also does well while joshing with the audience. Although one man on opening night flummoxed her slightly by revealing the woman he’s with is not his wife, or girlfriend, but a blind date from Match.com.
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.
Whelan’s Louise may have more fun than most of those millions. Her amiability can carry her through anything. Her enthusiasm will insure she will always have a good time. Whelan also amuses with the voices of her boss, boyfriend, Arthur Godfrey, and the Houston deejay.
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.
“Always…Patsy Cline” runs through Sunday, July 3, at the Independence Studio on 3 at the Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets range from $40 to $35 and can be obtained by calling 215-574-3550 or by visiting http://www.walnutstreettheatre.org. Grade: A