BWW Reviews: Whether Michelle Duffy or Heather Beck, ItÂ's ALWAYSÂ…PATSY CLINE in Munster
Gradually emerging as a work for the theater from casual beginnings in Houston in 1988, expanded for productions in Atlanta and Nashville (starring Mandy Barnett) in the mid-1990s, then to off-Broadway, to Chicago and beyond, "Always…Patsy Cline" was created to frame the immortal songs and voice of Patsy Cline in a theatrical context. With book by Ted Swindley, it was always a slight piece, with two actresses, a band and about two hours of material--counting the intermission. Yet the show has been made a staple of sorts in regional theaters far and near, by audiences for nostalgia, country classics and powerhouse actresses. Theatre at the Center in Munster, Indiana, (a half-hour's drive and a world away from the Chicago Loop) planned a production many months ago, to star Chicago native and now Los Angeles television star Michelle Duffy ("Desperate Housewives," "House"). And all was well.
However, Broadway had other plans for Duffy, who is now in preparation to co-star in the new Alan Menken/Glenn Slater musical "Leap of Faith," starring former Chicagoan Raul Esparza and set to begin performances at the St. James Theatre on Broadway on April 3rd. The Munster run of "Always…Patsy Cline" is scheduled from February 26th to April 1st, so apparently that wasn't going to work out! Duffy reluctantly bowed out, and Munster artistic director William Pullinsi and the show's director, Brian Russell, looked around for a new star. And not just any star, mind you. One who can embody the spirit and voice of one of country music's most legendary stars, and sing 27 complete songs during every performance. Eight times a week.
Their search led them to the Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where a different two-hander musical, "A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline," was currently in performance, starring Kendallville, Indiana, native Heather Beck. A match was made, and here we are. And Cline, and Chicago area audiences, are richer for the winds of fate blowing the way they did. Twenty-nine-year-old Beck is great. And her co-star, the busy Chicago actress Janelle Snow, is pretty great too. She's got most of the talking to do, and she handles it magnificently.
The conceit of this show is that a real-life sort of superfan, Houston's Louise Seger, is telling us, the audience, about her devotion to singing star Cline, whose career lasted just six years, from an appearance on "The Arthur Godfrey Show" in 1957 until her death in a small plane crash in 1963. The two women met in 1961, and were pen pals for the remainder of Cline's life (the Winchester, Virginia, native died at age 30). The first woman inducted into Nashville's Country Music Hall of Fame, Cline was the subject of the Jessica Lange film "Sweet Dreams," was a character in the Loretta Lynn bio-pic "Coal Miner's Daughter" (played by Beverly D'Angelo) and was one of the biggest selling artists of the early compact disc era (her greatest hits compilation sold millions and millions of copies, fueled by such immortal hits as "Crazy" [by Willie Nelson], "Walkin' After Midnight," "I Fall To Pieces," "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels," "Blue Moon of Kentucky" and "She's Got You").
And so, through directly addressing the audience, calling up an unseen DJ to play Cline's records, conjuring Cline to appear in her memory, and taking part in a few dialogue scenes with her idol (including a memorable night in her kitchen), Snow's Seger reveals much about her quite average divorcee life and how Cline, a more sophisticated-looking woman that any country star before her, helped her through her troubles and made her a better person for it.
Unfortunately, we learn next to nothing about Cline herself, about her childhood, her rise to fame in Nashville or her work with legendary producer Owen Bradley, the architect of the "Nashville Sound" and the Countrypolitan trend that Cline represents so fully. The unpretentious star favored tailored Jackie Kennedy suits rather than Dale Evans cowgirl outfits, and the smooth strings and Floyd Cramer "slip-note" piano arrangements of her songs were vastly different than the fiddles and piano poundings of other artists of the period. But this show omits discussions of those details, even though it does show the results of them. And the five-man band led by musical director William A. Underwood sounds fantastic here, even if it includes an electric bass rather than a standup one.
We don't get an overly maudlin trip through Cline's plane crash, either, thank goodness. The treatment of it seems just right. I mean, it's hardly a surprise to anyone who reads the program before the show or at intermission. Or listens to adult contemporary oldies radio. This show, and this production, lend a slightly glossy, slightly distant air to Patsy herself, as if she weren't quite real, and that all we have of her, all we need to have of her, is the words of her songs, and her glorious voice.
That voice! Surely one of the greatest natural female voices of the twentieth century, up there with Judy Garland, Karen Carpenter, Ethel Merman, Ella Fitzgerald and Mahalia Jackson, Cline's smooth voice would swoop and glide up to silvery midrange notes, and plummet effortlessly to some of the deepest bottom notes anyone ever heard. And Heather Beck captures those familiar mannerisms extremely well. You know that thing Patsy Cline always did, landing one note short of her goal and then leaning very slowly up into it, right smack in tune? It's here. The chilling low notes aren't quite as vibrant as Cline's, but maybe after she gets a decent night's sleep they will be. I got chills during Beck's rendition of "Crazy," by the way. And did I mention that I was born and raised in Nashville, in a family of musicians? I remember how revered Patsy Cline was (and still is) in the recording industry there. I do know what I'm talking about. Heather Beck does a fantastic Patsy Cline.
The technical elements of this production are fine, though the only chance for stellar work probably came with Kevin Barthel's wig designs. Brenda Winstead's costumes do evoke the style of the star, and Jack McGaw gives us a multi-level set for the two ladies to play around in and relate to the band, conveniently located across the back. B. Emil Boulos's lighting goes a long way toward creating the memory aspects of the production, though I could have used more echo in Barry G. Funderburg's sound design during the songs. But the theater seems exactly the right size for this show, and I do hope that older audiences find their way to it. Hell, younger audiences should too. It's simple, straightforward and clear, just like the star that it conjures out of the magic of the theater and the musical gifts of those who work in it.
ALWAYS…PATSY CLINE plays Wednesdays through Sundays at Theatre at the Center, the year-round professional theater at the Center for Visual and Performing Arts, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana. Theatre at the Center is located off I-80/94, just 35 minutes from downtown Chicago, and has free parking. Individual ticket prices range from $38-$42. Please call 219.836.3255 or 800.511.1552. For more information, visit www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com.