BWW Review: ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE is a Hit for York Little Theatre
Ah, Ted Swindley. If it's a musical, if women and country music are involved, chances are it's by Ted Swindley, the king of the small country jukebox musical. Perhaps you're familiar with Texan Swindley's HONKY TONK ANGELS, or perhaps you've encountered ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE before. There's no way, if you breathe, that you've never encountered the music of Patsy Cline, quite possibly America's greatest female singer.
In the case of ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE, Swindley is telling bits and pieces of a real story. Patsy Cline, by all accounts a lovely and charming as well as a remarkable woman, made friends with a fan, Louise Seger, at a concert in Houston during her early success. She and Seger kept in touch faithfully back in those days before e-mail, with Cline a thoughtful and regular correspondent in her letters.
At York Little Theatre, veteran director Christopher Quigley puts veteran area actress and equally veteran Cline impressionist Karen Steelman and popular local actress Becky Wilcox, playing Seger, together on stage in ALWAYS..., remarkably making a thin book feel far more solid than it should. Steelman and Wilcox have worked together before, and that relationship informs their Cline and Seger. As slight as Swindley's play is - Swindley's plays are always slight - the chemistry between the pair is the glue that makes the show work, or fails to hold it together. Here, everything is superglued tightly between an all-too-human performer and the adoring fan who doesn't lose faith upon discovering that her idol is really just like everyone else.
In theory, the show is basically an excuse for a concert of Patsy Cline songs. If that's what you want, you won't be disappointed, either by Steelman or by her backup male vocalists, some of whom are familiar sights on local stages. (All right, this writer was disappointed. The show's reference to Cline's memorial service fails to allow the male vocalists, as the Jordanaires, to sing "How Great Thou Art" all the way through, for even one verse. A solid quartet like this deserves to have a whole song to themselves.) One side note, perhaps a bit picayune, but nonetheless true - there are moments when Steelman sings that some old western swing fans may catch that she is sometimes more Kay Starr than Patsy Cline in her sound. For those of us who adore Kay Starr, that's not a bad thing at all. It's most telling in her delivery of "Your Cheating Heart."
Swindley writes Seger as a humorous, slightly over-the-top character, and Wilcox does not let the characterization down. She's one of the better female physical comedians in the area, which is necessary here, for a woman who's dancing to the music, mocking her own driving with a bar drinks tray (a visual highlight of the show), and otherwise making full use of the stage available to her in YLT's smaller Studio Theatre. Since most of Cline's characterization is at a microphone performing, it's Seger who provides the physical animation of the story, and Wilcox is living, breathing animation.
There's no particular reason a performer makes friends with a fan; it happens rarely once a performer is successful but it's not unknown. Swindley's writing fails to give an explanation for why Cline decides that Seger is a friend and decides to go with her after the show. Fortunately, these performers have sufficient chemistry for an audience to believe that they just "clicked," as people sometimes do, and that this created the evening at Seger's home that made them close.
One other thing that makes this particular production fun for an audience is that director Quigley also serves as the show's costumer. He's one of the better non-professional costume designers in the region (John P. White, primarily of Dutch Apple, may be the best of the professionals), and Cline's dresses are as much a delight for the audience as Steelman's performance. While her Grand Ole Opry red dress isn't a clone of Cline's actual dress, it's quite lovely, and her evening gowns are amazing period pieces constructed by Quigley.
Opening night featured a number of fans singing along, a testimony to the popularity of Cline's songs and her voice. Expect the same when you go to see it - although if you don't already have tickets you may not be able to go as the show sold out completely before opening night, another testimony to the popularity of Cline fifty years after her death. Steelman's a worthy interpreter of Cline's work, her backup vocalists are equally worthy, the band is in fine form, and Wilcox is always a delight in an even slightly comic role; here, she owns the show because of it. But the performance of both women won't leave you in doubt as to the truth of Segers' story, and no doubt you'll be humming at least one of the songs on the way out the door.
At York Little Theatre through August 23, unless they can be persuaded to add a date for overflow. Call 717-854-5715 to find out if tickets have become available, or visit ylt.org to check the upcoming schedule.