|Photo: Peter Wochniak|
When I was growing up, the soundtrack of our home was a mix of the European classics, vaudeville, the Great American Songbook, and the Big Band era. I was a city kid, and country music just didn't resonate with me. So when I say that I found the Stages production of "Always...Patsy Cline," as polished and entertaining as it was, to also be ephemeral and not very memorable, you'll understand that this is partly due to the fact that I didn't come to the show pre-sold on the music.
Largely, though, I think it's due to the fact that "Always...Patsy Cline" is not so much a book musical as a celebrity impersonation revue. The slight story line is based on a real-life 1961 incident in which Houston divorcee Louise Seger befriended Cline during an appearance at a local dance hall. The two became fast friends, and Ms. Seger's correspondence with Ms. Cline became the basis for the show's book by Ted Swindley. Louise clowns around, chats with the audience, and generally fills time between segments of Patsy singing over two dozen of her better-known songs. Neither character is written with much depth, which makes it hard to become truly involved in their story.
Fortunately the show is short—two hours, including intermission—and beautifully done, so it doesn't wear out its welcome. Jacqueline Petroccia, reprising the role of Patsy Cline from the original Stages production of the show in 2012, looks and sounds so much like the real Patsy Cline that it's sometimes startling. Lou Bird's costumes can take part of the credit for the look, of course, but Ms. Petroccia gets the lion's share of the praise for her unerring ability to capture Cline's vocal style and performance mannerisms. Close your eyes, and you'd swear it was Ms. Cline herself doing that characteristic semi-yodel in "Stupid Cupid" or that "cry in the voice" vocal break in songs like "Your Cheating Heart."
Yes, it's essentially a celebrity impersonation, but that makes it no less a brilliant piece of acting. In fact, I'd go so far as to suggest that a truly successful impersonation is in many ways harder than portraying a fictional character. If you're playing Hamlet, for example, there isn't going to be anyone in the house thinking, "hey, the real Hamlet didn't sound like that." Just saying.
As noted above, most of the narrative heavy lifting in "Always...Patsy Cline" falls to the actress playing Louise. That would be local favorite Zoe Vonder Haar, also reprising her 2012 role in fine style. Ms. Vonder Haar's Louise is a big, bawdy, engaging good ol' girl, from the top of her red period wig to the bottom of her cowboy boots. It's impossible not to like her, and there seems to be real chemistry between her and Ms. Patroccia's Patsy. It takes a pair of strong singing actresses to carry this show, and Stages certainly has them.
Interestingly, the real-life Louise Seger was not entirely happy with her stage persona. “I’ve never had red hair," she said in an interview for Country Weekly magazine in the 1990s. "I don’t wear tacky clothes or have that accent.” Stage Louise's devotion to Patsy and overall good-humored decency, though, are apparently true to life.
Musical and (occasionally) vocal accompaniment comes from a solid six-piece band headed (the night we saw the show) by the ever-reliable Justin Smolik on keyboards (subbing for Musical Director Lisa Campbell Albert). The other principal band members are John Higgins on pedal steel guitar, Jon Ferber on electric lead guitar, Kevin Buckley on fiddle and acoustic guitar, Vince Corkery on electric bass, and Don Drewett on drums. They sounded great and the vocal/instrumental mix was perfect.
James Wolk has put together a colorful and convincingly period set, with Louise's kitchen and living room in front and a raised stage for Patsy Cline's singing engagements at the back, behind a scrim. The set stretches across a wide but shallow stage that appears to take up about half of the Playhouse's auditorium, turning the original "in the round" space into a semicircle with the audience seated in a rectangle. That probably makes for some odd viewing angles if you're seated down front; from where we were in the back, though, sight lines were fine.
Stages Artistic Director Michael Hamilton has done a fine job putting everything together into a seamless whole, with clear, character-driving blocking and brisk pacing. The bottom line is that "Always...Patsy Cline" is an entertaining tribute to a singer who was with us all too briefly (Cline died in a plane crash in 1963 at age 30) and certainly a "must see" for fans of Ms. Cline and country music in general. Performances continue at the Playhouse at Westport Plaza through August 31st. The show will re-open with the same cast on September 18th. For more information: stagesstlouis.org.
P.S.: Am I the only one who thinks Merle Haggard's 1969 hit "Okie From Muskogee" is almost a note-for-note copy of "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels"? Just wondering.