BWW Review: 'Come On In' to ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE at the Fulton
Ted Swindley, like the trifecta of playwrights Jones Hope Wooten (responsible for THE DIXIE SWIM CLUB and similar semi-artistic works written primarily for community theatres with more available women than men) specializes in his own theatrical genre, the southern-fried, and, when musical, southern-fried jukebox piece involving women country singers. Also responsible for the somewhat painful HONKY TONK ANGELS, another of the latter ilk, he's best known for his free adaptation of a presumably true story in ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE, not to be confused with its almost equally popular competing show, A CLOSER WALK WITH PATSY CLINE. Between the two shows, there's a female performer cottage industry in Patsy Cline impressions around the country, since both shows are in fairly constant production.
A basic two-hander show, ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE is completely dependent upon cast and stage band to make the musical work. It's the story of the rise of performer Patsy Cline, and her self-appointed biggest fan, Louise, from Houston, who meets Patsy at a dive bar where she's performing, befriends her, and becomes correspondent and confidant as Patsy's career ascends. At the Fulton in Lancaster, directed by artistic director Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark of Maine State Music Theatre, to which the show will travel later, the show rests in the very capable hands (and voice) of Christine Mild, who plays Patsy Cline, and of Charis Leos, who plays the comical but lovable Louise, Cline's fan-turned-friend.
In a set that's basically The Grand Ole Opry and Louise's kitchen, the two women interact, representing the one actual day they spent together in Houston, the days of Patsy's concerts, and Louise's life as she recalls her adventures listening to, then meeting, and then exchanging regular personal correspondence with, Patsy Cline. The show is neither deep nor profound, more jukebox Patsy Cline concert than anything else - which is hardly a bad thing; in fact, it's commendable - but it's highly entertaining if you're a Patsy Cline fan (this describes most human beings).
The particular advantage of ALWAYS... over A CLOSER WALK, the other Cline musical, is that it avoids the latter's both morbid and maudlin conclusion; here, Cline's death is a fact, not a plot point for heavenly cabaret scenes. ALWAYS... is a very funny show, and while half of it is dependent on a great Patsy Cline interpreter such as Mild, who's spot-on as Cline, the other half of it is dependent on a great female comedy performer who can channel a slightly deranged Houston housewife to the audience. This show has that in Charis Leos, a performer who can make the act of breathing look silly and the effort to put on her boots a comic masterstroke. Not to be missed, the aforementioned boot-pulling, as well as Louise's stage pantomime of driving her car from her home to the bar and back.
Mild and the stage band led by Patrick Fanning cover all the songs you'd expect from a Patsy Cline retrospective, sounding eerily like Cline herself and a recording band. Audience approval on opening night ran high for "Walking After Midnight," "Come On In (And Sit Right Down)," sung by Patsy and Louise together, "Crazy" (a built-in showstopper), and "Just A Closer Walk." However, Mild is also a wonderful interpreter of some of Cline's very best numbers, such as "Three Cigarettes In an Ashtray" and "You Belong to Me" (one of the very best songs among most of the performers who have had hits with it). Kudos to costume designer Brittany Leffler for Mild's costuming for Patsy, both for her earlier traditional country and western outfits and for her later cocktail dress look.
ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE isn't high theatrical art. It isn't deep or thought-provoking, it isn't Pulitzer material, it doesn't really shed light on the human condition, and it's not a huge musical triumph in its own right. It's never been Broadway material - though it's in constant production because of the perfectly natural desire to listen to Patsy Cline's songs as often as possible. And that's its entire point: it's a perfectly fine comedy with a running Patsy Cline concert going through it. It's pure entertainment with no deeper motive, the musical and theatrical equivalent of a cold, fizzy soda on a hot day.
And really, isn't that why most people go to the theatre?
At the Fulton through May 21. Visit thefulton.org for tickets and information.