Stroll Down Memory Lane with CityRep's A CLOSER WALK WITH PATSY CLINE
There have been many great singers who left an indelible mark on the music industry and created music that stood the test of time long after their voices fell silent. Among them is an undeniable country music legend who changed the game in many ways and blazed a trail for numerous female country artists to follow, the incomparable Patsy Cline. Although her life and career were cut tragically short in 1963, Cline's music and voice are still instantly recognizable and her impact is still felt in the country music world even today.
To open their season, CityRep is currently presenting a show that provides a window into the life of the legendary singer and a chance to hear many of her most beloved songs, sung live on stage. While A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline does succeed in bringing to life those songs in quite spectacular fashion, the show as a whole is a mixed bag, an odd combination of disparate and at times frustrating elements that never really gel into a cohesive whole.
Created by Dean Regan, the show feels a bit as if Regan wasn't sure what he wanted the show to be, so he just did a little bit of everything, but there's not enough of the really good stuff and too much of the not so great. For example, there are two very short moments that provide a glimpse of Patsy's private life and the emotions and turmoil that accompanied her music. It would be great to have much more of that, more insight into what really went on in Patsy's life, in her mind and in her heart. To see more of the real relationships and real emotions that she dealt with and put into her music. Unfortunately, Regan just teases that possibility but never digs deep into Patsy and the person she really was.
On the other hand, Regan keeps throwing in these other moments and bits that seem out of place and unnecessary. Three times, we sit through an extended standup routine, performed by a character who is ostensibly Patsy's opening act. The scenes feel like they are from a different show entirely, and while they are at times very funny, they're completely unnecessary and will have most audience members thinking "Where's Patsy?? Bring back Patsy!!" There are other similar moments sprinkled throughout, mostly involving the band, that are also odd and unnecessary.
Speaking of what audience members may be thinking, they may also be wondering, "Isn't there already a show about Patsy Cline??" The answer is yes, there is, but it's a quite different show. The other one is more of a character-driven play about Patsy and a fan who she befriends. This one is more of a musical revue or concert, with re-enactments of Patsy's big performances, including the Grand Old Opry, Vegas and Carnegie Hall. In between those, there's a radio DJ named Little Big Man, a kind of Patsy superfan, who is doing a tribute to Patsy on his radio show. In beween songs, Little Big Man speaks to the audience, telling the story of Patsy's life. The use of a narrator is a fine framing device, but it's much better to show us Patsy's life, rather than having a character talk at us, giving a sometimes long, sometimes dull narration about her life. A lot of it feels like it's just killing time, giving the actress playing Patsy time to change her outfit or have a glass of water and catch her breath offstage.
Fortunately for the CityRep production, that actress is Julie Johnson, who also directs the production. Johnson stumbled a bit at the very start of her very first song, but she recovered quickly. After that, she gives a sparkling and wonderful performance as Patsy Cline, sounding very much like the famous singer on many of the songs. Her renditions of "I Fall to Pieces," "Leavin' On Your Mind," "Faded Love," and "Lovesick Blues" are especially strong. She also demonstrates her ability to find the emotional core of the song, including a stirring performance of "She's Got You."
Johnson also manages to nail some of the acting moments that Regan gives his version of Patsy. During the aforementioned scenes when we get a brief glimpse into Patsy's inner life, Johnson delivers with true, believable emotional responses. At other times, she get to demonstrate her talent for creating wonderful country-style sassiness and brassy humor. She's really excellent in the role and will make longtime Patsy fans cheer while perhaps winning over some who were on the fence about Cline's music.
Steve Barcus appears as the show's other leading performer, playing Little Big Man as well as a few other characters and also playing the keyboard (he served as the production's Musical Director as well). The multi-talented actor proves here just how charming and charismatic he is. Those three scenes of Patsy's opening act doing standup are much more tolerable because Barcus is so hilarious and perfect. Equally strong is his performance as the DJ who loves Patsy and wants to share his love with the rest of the world. It's a very sympathetic and genuine character that Barcus creates and at times he makes it feel as if the play is really the DJ's story, not Patsy Cline's.
Also featured in this production is Bridget Davis as Young Patsy. Davis gets to sing the first two songs of the show and she has a gorgeous voice. It's a shame her time singing on stage is so short lived. She does appear at other moments in the show as various background characters, but none of those gives her much to do. A student in musical theatre at Oklahoma City University, Davis is clearly a local talent to keep an eye on.
While the opening night performance was beset by some technical glitches, CityRep's production team has done an excellent job overall. Especially notable is the costume design by Drenda Lewis and Jeffrey Meek. Patsy's outfits are perfectly executed and the rest of the ensemble looks just as good. Even with the show's inherent flaws, A Closer Walk is a great way to either relive Cline's music or experience it for the first time. Many of the songs are classics that should be heard at least once in one's life and are likely to be remembered for a long time. For those reasons, and Johnson's performance, this show is a walk worth taking.
A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline will be presented in the Freede Little Theatre at The Civic Center Music Hall located at 201 N Walker Ave, Oklahoma City, OK 73102. Performances run through September 24th, on Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday at 7:30pm, Saturday at 1:30pm and 7:30pm and Sunday at 1:30pm. Tickets are $8 for Students, Teachers and Military Personnel (with ID), $25 (groups of eight or more), $35 (matinees) and $40 (evening performances), and may be purchased by calling the Civic Center Box Office at (405) 297-2264 or online at www.cityrep.com.
Pictured: Julie Johnson.