For a Song
Always...Patsy Cline is a light, mildly entertaining evening. You get an efficiently evocative set that's divided into three parts: a down-home apartment; an old-fashioned country bar, complete with jukebox; and, in the center, the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. There are two skilled singer-performers, one of them also a comic, working in front of a tight, professional group of musicians in cowboy hats. Bright colored lights play over the scene, and audience participation -- clapping, whooping, singing along -- is encouraged, and lubricated by beer, wine and martinis. Or, for milder souls, snacks and hot chocolate.
On the night I attended, understudy Laura Ryan played Patsy Cline. Beth Flynn is her adoring fan, Louise. This piece, adapted by Ted Swindley, is based on a real friendship between the two women, which began when Louise heard Patsy's voice on her radio. Long nights of boozy girlfriend confessions followed, as Patsy dished to Louise about her sad life and abusive husband. There was also a two-year-long exchange of letters.
Flynn goes all out as Louise, playing her as a caricature, but with a bit of heart and lots of balls. She steals scenes, sashays across the stage, alternately bosses and mothers Patsy and finds all kinds of ways of involving the audience in her doings, picking out one unlucky man sitting with his date for particular harassment. Watching, I couldn't help thinking of Annie Dwyer of the Heritage Square Opera House; she takes this piece of shtick to the very edge of good taste and then way beyond -- whining, snuggling up to her reluctant suitor, stealing his drink, snarling at his date, twisting his hair into little horns and forcing him to admit that he loves her, until you find yourself howling with laughter. Flynn doesn't go quite this far -- the show's format wouldn't permit it if she wanted to -- but she's pretty funny. During a couple of Patsy's numbers, she scrambles around the stage, bullying the musicians to make sure their rhythms are right, thumping at their instruments until finally, overcome, she's playing and singing full-out herself.
Ryan is a poised and appealing performer, but her acting and singing sound too professional and insufficiently sincere. Country is a sentimental genre, and it only works if the songs seem to be wrenched right from the singer's aching heart. As performed by Ryan, even the teary-eyed quaver of "A Closer Walk With Thee" felt calculated.
Of course, the singing is at the heart of the enterprise. Ryan deepens her voice to mimic Patsy Cline's, and it sounds unnatural at first, but the tone becomes more appealing as the evening progresses. It helps that many of the songs are close to irresistible. "Come on In (and Sit Right Down)" is performed by both women, and it's funny and genuinely sweet. I could have done with less distraction by Flynn on "Stupid Cupid," but Ryan does well by the big numbers: "I Fall to Pieces," "Crazy," "You Belong to Me." The pleasure of the music and of Flynn's gutsy comedy are enhanced by the sense, conveyed both by the script and the performances, that in a rough world, these two women found a small safe haven in their friendship.
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