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BWW Review: ALWAYS...PATSY CLINE at the Center for the Arts at River Ridge

"I remember my dad telling me to listen to the way she told a story. I remember feeling more emotion when she sang than anyone else I had ever heard." --LeAnn Rimes on Patsy Cline

It is not an overstatement to proclaim that Patsy Cline is the finest female country singer of all time. What Aretha Franklin is to soul, what Whitney Houston is to pop, and what Janis Joplin is to rock, Patsy Cline is to country music. No one sounded quite like her. That voice: hearty, tough and velvet lovely, all in one, with a certain lilt that cannot be replicated. I grew up with the rock goddesses of the classic rock era (Ann Wilson, Chrissie Hynde, Tina Turner and Stevie Nicks), but it's the country star who died too young who shames them all with her yearning twang combined with a gruff alto. Even though she was country (far from my favorite genre), I listened to her as much as I listened to them--that ferocity and sensitivity, sometimes captured in the same breath. She was one of a kind. No wonder she was voted Number One in the CMT's "40 Greatest Women of Country Music."

Because she died so young (age 30) in a notorious plane wreck, she became a mythic figure. But her records lived on, with that immortal, exquisite voice. Her sound was no accident. When she was a teenager, a throat infection and rheumatic fever left her hospitalized. It affected her voice, and afterwards she was never the same. As she put it, after her sickness, she "had this booming voice like Kate Smith."

I wonder how many young people today know of Patsy Cline. How many of them know that her 1961 song, "Crazy," penned by Willie Nelson, is the #1 jukebox song of all time and was used as the theme song for Ross Perot's 1992 Presidential bid? How many know that, aside from her country roots, she was voted the #11 female in rock music by VH-1? How many have seen the biopic Sweet Dreams, where Jessica Lange memorably portrayed her but couldn't replicate that voice so she lip-synced all of Patsy's tunes? How many people under 25 years old have even heard of the name Patsy Cline?

I think of all of this as I watch Ted Swindley's ALWAYS...PATSY CLINE at the Center for the Arts at River Ridge in New Port Richey. The two-person show is based on a true story of the ultimate groupie, Louise Seger, and her friendship with Cline. It ranges from raucous to extremely touching in the end. It sometimes borders on the verge of turning into an extended lounge act instead of a stirring theatrical work, but the two professional performers in the roles of Louise and Patsy, Terri Hatcher D'Onofrio and Diana Rogers, save it from such a corn pone lounge lizard fate.

Fans of Patsy Cline, and even those too young to know who she is, will have the time of their lives with this one.

As Patsy, the incomparable D'Onofrio houses a powerful singing voice, selling each of Patsy's hits with gusto. She wisely adds her own interpretive spin to the classic songs. Although she sometimes seems too refined and tame for the "hell-raisin'" crooner, she's such an incredible presence when she sings with that chill-inducing, wall-rattling belt that it doesn't matter. This is a mammoth undertaking for a single performer to endure--singing 25 songs in the country stylings of Cline, but D'Onfrio pulls it off and then some.

Louise is the heart and soul of the show, telling the story of her friendship with Cline through various monologues and scenes, and Broadway veteran Diana Rogers absolutely owns the role. She could turn the mere act of sitting down at a table into an epic tale. She physicalizes each word, painting verbal pictures. She has the rare ability to fill the room and yet still feel like she's talking to you and you alone. It's hilarious and one of the finest performances you will see. She's so good that sometimes the show could also be called Always...Louise Seger.

Both D'Onofrio and Rogers are so incredible that I wish there could be even more connection between the country singer and her wild fan. One sings so powerfully, and the other tells amazing stories, so I wish their few acting scenes together had even more punch. But that's nitpicking. These are two fine professional performers at the top of their game, and both of them deserve huge, appreciative audiences every night. Make sure you get a good seat so that you can be the one to dance with Louise and get a hat signed by the cast and the band.

Patsy's songs are led by The Bodacious Bobcats Band, top-notched musicians that include bandleader and bass player David McMillan, Ron Williams on piano, Ronnie Zeller on percussion, Steve Durrwatcher on fiddle, Eric Lider on steel peddle, and Danny Whitaker on guitar. They're a tight group, and their music drives the show. It's a fast-paced thrill ride, thanks to the two fine performers and this A+ band.

ALWAYS...PATSY CLINE has been deftly guided by director Rick D'Onofrio. Matt Beil's lighting works well, and Daniel McConaghy's scenic design is quite appropriate with a 50's-style kitchen set and real jukebox. I only wished the stagehands who moved the microphones wore cowboy hats so that we keep the illusion of being in a honky tonk and not a 900-seat theatre.

This show is the first to be produced totally in house at the Center for the Arts. (All the proceeds from ALWAYS...PATSY CLINE will go towards purchasing new equipment for the CFA.) It's a perfect choice with two of our area's finest performers. It's one fast hour and forty minutes of good times and great music. You'll laugh; you'll dance; and you'll sing along with some of the greatest country hits of all time ("Walkin' After Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces," "Blue Moon of Kentucky," and 22 more). It's part concert, part memory play, and part musical. It's a thrilling love letter to country music's greatest crooner--a veritable Patsypalooza!

ALWAYS...PATSY CLINE only plays Friday night, February 19th at 7:00 PM and Saturday, February 20th at 3:00 PM and at 7:00 PM at the Center for the Arts at River Ridge (11646 Town Center Road, New Port Richey). Advance tickets are $5 for students and $10 for adults; $15 at the door. Online sales at seatyourself.biz. For information, call (727) 774-7382 or go to centerfortheartsriverridge.com.


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