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BWW Review: Theater West End's ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE Is a Cute Musical About a Star and Her Stan

An incredible songbook from a star gone too soon...

BWW Review: Theater West End's ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE Is a Cute Musical About a Star and Her Stan

"I'm back where I belong," goes the chorus in one of Patsy Clines's half-dozen signature songs. I feel the same way hearing her sing it at Theater West End, where I sit in the audience for the first time in over a year, having reviewed every show at this regional gem since its doors opened... until a pandemic broke my streak.

Right away, I remember why I was always eager to make the hourlong trip from Orlando: the charm of downtown Sanford (one part biker bar, one part hipster heaven), the promise of great casting, the strong show selection, and the always-transportive set design. This time, it's a Houston honky-tonk in 1961, where each group of patrons is seated at a socially distanced "restaurant table" atop a floor that's been hand painted to look like a roadhouse's hardwood. More often than not, there is mighty fine singin' here too - tonight, complete with yodel and twang.

Needless to say, it isn't really Patsy Cline I hear doing "Back in Baby's Arms." Theater West End veteran Ashley Marie Lewis fills those after-midnight-walkin' shoes, having previously wowed here as Liz/Beth in If/Then. Cline, of course, died in a 1963 plane crash at the age of only 30. The early end couldn't curtail her legacy, which today includes a fan-favorite musical revue that just happens to lend itself to a pandemic (two actors, no fuss).

ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE is the true story of Cline's chance encounter with a diehard fan turned Patsy pen pal, Louise Seger. Though technically a jukebox musical, it's mostly a Cline cabaret: 27 songs in all and not a dud in the bunch. Louise's long monologues between Patsy's numbers aren't nearly as timeless, but then her ability to talk about a single celebrity sighting for two whole hours is something I find both deeply and embarrassingly relatable. It's no surprise that a show fundamentally about fandom resonates in the current age.

Mary Ellen Cerroni has her work cut out for her as Louise, the only character no one came to see. She surely understands that her part is essentially an engine for driving the songbook, and yet Cerroni comes at it with tremendous commitment, enthusiasm, and palpable delight. Ted Swindley's script commands her to captivate the audience for remarkably long periods of solo stage time but doesn't arm her with adequate material. This isn't Cerroni's first time in Louise's wig, though, and it's clear she knows exactly the part she needs to play. She has the stage presence of an instant best friend: warm, energetic, playful, and - when the Sanford crowd gets to hootin' and hollerin' - quick on her feet. She makes me not mind that she's recounting an essentially four-sentence story over the course of two hours.

BWW Review: Theater West End's ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE Is a Cute Musical About a Star and Her Stan

It's when Lewis dons her wig, of course, that the crowd really comes alive. After all, it's Patsy they've come to see, and judging by the hue of their hair and a clear familiarity with every lyric in Ms. Cline's repertoire, some of them might have been in that Houston dive back in 1963 themselves. (A friendly but also grumpy reminder to my fellow patrons: musicals are neither concerts nor sing-alongs. But hey, Lewis and Cerroni don't seem to mind the volunteer chorus nearly as much as I do.) Lewis's voice can do all kinds of things, and while she's gladly not a celebrity impersonator, she fits the songs and the part like a well-worn cowboy boot. I think back to the first time I heard of Patsy Cline, sitting in a college dorm room and feeling I'd discovered some unknown treasure from the past. Walking out of Theater West End all these years later, I feel grateful for a fuller appreciation of this "Crazy" country queen.

Jukebox musicals and revues may never be my favorite form of theatre, but all I have to do is imagine a Patsy Cline act at a local celebrity impersonators' tribute show and suddenly ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE feels like high art. So does just about everything Theater West End does, it seems. It's especially gratifying to see actors unmasked for the first time in ages. (Both the cast members and all four of the spirited on-stage band members are fully vaccinated.) Kudos to co-owners/producers Quinn Roberts and Derek Critzer (the latter doubling as lighting designer for this show), along with the ALWAYS crew helmed by director/scene designer Eric Desnoyers, for achieving such lovely ambiance and full-throated theater in spite of the challenges and without sacrificing safety. I'll ALWAYS remember my first time seeing live performers unmasked again.

Note: Pandemic limitations meant we weren't able to attend this production of ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE when it opened on April 16, 2021. The venue graciously invited BroadwayWorld to attend in the final weekend, though it meant coverage wouldn't post until after the show closed its run on May 2nd. Those eager to see what Theater West End is all about - and support local arts in this time of need - can get tickets for the Tony and Grammy-winning musical Once, which runs here May 14-30, 2021.

What did you think of ALWAYS... PATSY CLINE at Theater West End? Let me know on Twitter @AaronWallace.

Photos courtesy of Theater West End

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