BIG TWANG THEORY
You have to love country music--particularly country music from the early 1960s--to really get the most out of Always...Patsy Cline. It also helps if you like being part of the show, since the actors talk and sing directly to you and even draw individuals into the action. But even if country's not your cup of Texas tea, there's still a lot to enjoy in the stylish, energetic musical numbers performed by Cline's vocal heir, Melissa Swift-Sawyer, at the Galleria Theatre's new production: She's fabulous, no matter your musical tastes.
This is an unusual show even for a musical revue. Playwright and director Ted Swindley tells his story from the point of view of a real-life kooky fan, Louise Seger, who made Cline's acquaintance in the early Sixties when she was on tour, befriended her and exchanged correspondence until the singer's death at age thirty in a 1963 airplane crash. A country girl like Cline herself, Seger's sympathetic nature and genuine affection for Cline's music appear to have offered Cline a safe harbor in a brutal world.
Cline was a battered wife who wouldn't leave her savage husband because, like so many Southern women of the period, she thought she had to stay with him for the children's sake. We hear several times that the children come first, and no further explanation for the marriage is ever offered. But then, there's very little in the way of story or psychological profile here. Instead, Seger, the play's narrator, is content to tell us how she became enamored of Cline's peculiar style, how Cline came through Houston on tour and how Seger went to see her at the local country bar. The two women struck up a conversation, and Seger even negotiated a better deal for the singer with the house manager. Cline went home with Seger for bacon and eggs, and the two stayed up half the night talking about men, children and the ordinary sorrows of women everywhere.
Through the whole show, we get to hear Swift-Sawyer belt out Patsy's best: "Walkin' After Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces," "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Crazy," "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and the classic "She's Got You." There are 23 songs in two hours, so there really isn't much time for exposition, anyway.
Swift-Sawyer loses some power in the lower ranges, but her middle range is dynamic, strong and sassy. She cleverly combines twang with bell-like clarity, pushing some notes out through her lungs and others apparently through her lungs and nose at the same time--neat trick, unique sound. She handles those dangerous slides like a champ and, best of all, invests every song with fresh feeling.
Swift-Sawyer has few lines of dialogue; she's there to sing, and she doesn't so much duplicate Cline as she recaptures some of her spirit and her style. You can hear the heartbreak in her voice as you could in Cline's, and judging by the sorry facts of Patsy's short life and the content of virtually all the songs she sings, speaking to heartbreak is the whole point of her music.
All the actual acting is done by Cathy Barnett as Seger. She combines the gentle, buoyant hilarity of a Lily Tomlin parody with her own peculiar brashness. It takes a little while to warm to Barnett's performance, which is a tad self-conscious in the show's opening moments; it's very difficult to carry off that intimacy-with-the-audience routine, and she doesn't always manage it. The writing is predictable and condescending at first, too (way too many cutesy jokes about Texas). But eventually, Barnett and director Swindley warm to the task and win us over with sheer energy and goofiness.
Even for those not readily impressed by country music, Cline's highly developed personal style and Swift-Sawyer's honest interpretation of it awaken wonder at the ingenious artistic spirit behind the pop icon.
A recent performance found audiences eating it all up--very responsive, very involved. They even gave the two-woman show a standing ovation. Always... Patsy Cline may not tell you much about the singer's life, but it tells you what you really want to know--how an extraordinary talent can hide behind an ordinary mask.
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