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BWW Reviews: Amping Up the Torchiness at Toby’s Baltimore: ALWAYS ... PATSY CLINE

In the theater world, dinner theater is a distinct genre; the audiences are different, the object of the exercise is not to be challenging or unexpected, and there are seldom any highbrow pretensions. Blue-hairs outnumber tattoos probably two-to-one in the crowd. Given these parameters, the question a critic has to address is simple: Does the show provide a wonderful time? Toby's Baltimore Dinner Theatre aces that one with its current production of Always ... Patsy Cline by Ted Swindley, first produced 1993, and constantly revived.

Fundamentally, the show is a revue of songs associated with country/crossover star Patsy Cline, built around a recreated Cline live performance. Inevitably, the enterprise rests almost completely on the shoulders of the actress and singer who personates Cline. With Tiffany Walker Porta in the title role, the show is secure. I never had the good fortune to attend a live performance by the real Patsy Cline, who died in a 1963 plane crash, and I know her voice only from her records, which probably lacked the spontaneity of Cline's live work. But comparing Porta's channeling of Cline to the records, which were heavily produced and dynamically restrained in the style of those times, Porta's performance is more exciting. Porta's contralto is naturally more expressive, nasal and torchy, somewhere slightly off Cline's center in the direction of Edith Piaf. It's just a great voice for delivering Cline's songs in knockout style.

And knockouts abound. I was particularly struck with "Your Cheating Heart" and "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray," archetypal broken-heart ballads. But with two dozen numbers, ranging from novelty songs to rockers to hymns, the show sent me away with a heightened sense of Cline's range, and the promise that was lost when Cline left us at age 30.

The performance that is recreated, and which provides a loose dramatic frame for the revue, was a 1961 Houston date on which Cline's path crossed with that of an ardent fan, Louise Seger. Apparently they met before the show, bonded, and spent the night after the show at Seger's house. Later they corresponded frequently until Cline's untimely death. The character of Louise, portrayed here with gumption and lots of country twang by Lynne R. Sigler, gives the drama, such as it is, some breathing room, rescuing it from the claustrophobia that sometimes envelops one-woman (and one-man) shows. There's nothing complicated or conflicted about the relationship; Louise, despite her Everywoman life, is spiritually Cline's double, a point emphasized by the way the show gives her a couple of opportunities to take the mike from Cline and sing Cline's own songs. Their dramatic arc is simply a matter of convergence of kindred spirits, the high point of which is literally a pajama party at which the heroines dish about kids and troubles with menfolk. Challenging it is not, but it makes for a pleasurable evening, the dinner theater prime directive.

The remainder of the production is competently done. The seven-piece band swings, the backing trio of female singers (who also mime all the other roles) warble delightfully, the sets look sharp. My one cavil would be with the costumes; they are dowdy and unflattering. After Mad Men has reminded us all how wonderfully people of that era could dress, and in a show intended to glamorize the depicted times, these depressing duds let a little of the air out of the tires. But only a little.

Veteran Toby's director Daniel L. McDonald shows a sure touch throughout. From his pre-show warmup dialogue with the groundlings at their tables, it is obvious he knows his audience, and they know him. And he delivers what they like.

You'll like it too.


Always ... Patsy Cline, by Ted Swindley, June 12 - July 25, Toby's Baltimore Dinner Theatre, The Best Western Hotel & Conference Center, 5625 O'Donnell Street, Baltimore, MD 21224. , 410-649-1660. Tickets $48.50 - $54.00. Doors open for dinner two hours before performance.


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