Patsy Cline Lite

A single-note version of the singer barely does her artistry justice.

A Closer Walk With Patsy Clineis a tribute to the famed country singer; the slender plot is just an excuse for a string of songs. So everything hinges on the acting and singing talent of the actress playing the title role. Emily Walter has a strong voice and exuberant energy that sweeps the show along and fills the playhouse. But she's also somewhat lacking in finesse, and her acting never seems quite sincere -- not even in that stagy, wet-eyed way in which seasoned performers express sincerity. Walters comes across as a hardworking professional who more than gives the audience its money's worth; what's lacking is vulnerability. We don't feel we're getting to know her better as the evening progresses; we don't see a change in her singing style as she matures from a raw teenager to a full-fledged artist. In short, it's a single-faceted performance. As I watched, I couldn't help remembering Mary Louise Lee in the Shadow Theatre Company's Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill, another tribute to a famous singer. Lee was luminous, transparent and willing to give everything she had -- life, intellect and soul -- to the music.

The lack of insight into Cline's life is partly the fault of the script (the playhouse program doesn't list an author, but a Google search turned up the name Dean Regan). The evening begins with a fictive DJ called Little Big Man (Eddie Joe Clark) who, on March 5, 1963, decides to dedicate his radio program to Patsy Cline. He tells us a little about her life. Two marriages and two children fly by in a flash. We learn of her difficult early years playing any bar or honky-tonk that would have her. Little Big Man spins her records: "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Just a Closer Walk," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "I Fall to Pieces," "Crazy." Walter appears on stage to sing each song. She's particularly appealing as an over-excited teenager barging into the studio and taking her first shot at fame. I also liked her understated rendition of "Amazing Grace."

Between numbers, Little Big Man, along with a sidekick played by Patrick Alan Kearns, sings the commercials -- odes to Mr. Clean and Ajax, assertions that "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should." Clark and Kearns, both of them large men whose easy humor is infectious, also play clowns who open for Cline -- Clark in Las Vegas, Kearns at Carnegie Hall. The jokes in these monologues are truly appalling, but the actors -- rolling their eyes, drawing out the syllables, ogling, coaxing and bullying the audience -- draw every possible ounce of humor from them.

Musicians Wendell L. Vaughn, Dean Tellefson, Mitch Jervis, Charles Lettes and Scott Smith do yeoman work. Their sound, Joanne Kearns's costumes and Clark and Kearns's broad hamming and mugging, bring the very particular world of '60s country to vivid life. Pretty soon the audience is humming and clapping along, and happy "aaahs" arise as people recognize the opening bars of their favorite songs.

At the end of the evening, we learn that March 5, 1963, was the day of Patsy Cline's death. She was on her way to a benefit for a fellow performer with two other country stars, Cowboy Copus and Hawkshaw Hawkins, when her plane went down, killing everyone on board. It's both corny and kinda country wonderful when the last scene shows her in a white cowboy outfit, bathed in heavenly light and singing "Just a Closer Walk."

 
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