The recently extended jukebox musical evokes Patsy Cline’s warmth and grit in a celebration of her unique friendship with fan Louise Seger.
With a title like “Always ... Patsy Cline,” you might figure Ted Swindley’s 1988 jukebox musical would be about Patsy Cline. Well, it is. But not always. It’s also a love letter to Louise Seger.
Louise was a real person, not the playwright’s invention. She was Patsy’s biggest fan and the sister Patsy never had. Swindley’s musical explores how she graduated from fan to friend.
Sometime in the late 1980s, Louise shares her memories of her unlikely bond with Patsy. Her story begins in 1961.
After having her heartstrings plucked by Patsy’s songs on the radio and TV, Louise (Susan Greenhill) runs into the real-life Patsy (Meredith Jones) at a concert in the Esquire Ballroom in Houston. After sharing a friendly chat, Louise volunteers her services as a pushy stage manager. Patsy agrees — and Louise is actually very good at it. (I imagine the back-up band must’ve felt a tad peeved after Louise starts bossing them around.) Following the show, Louise takes Patsy home, fries her some eggs, and then lets her share a room with one of her kids. (It’s a poignant moment, because Patsy’s missing her own kids.) Before the crack of dawn, Louise surprises Hal Harris (the DJ she’s always pestering to play Patsy Cline records) with the living, breathing singer. After Patsy does a radio interview, Louise drives her to the airport. From that day forward, Patsy starts writing to Louise like an old friend in letters signed “Always ... Patsy Cline.” They would remain pen pals until Patsy died in a plane crash in 1963. She was only 30 years old.
It’s a touching story — and a clever theatrical device.
Swindley cleverly uses Patsy’s No. 1 fan to put the audience inside the musical. Louise, sitting in star-struck awe in the presence of her idol, becomes a stand-in for Patsy’s fans in the audience. While enjoying Patsy’s songs, the fans get a vicarious jolt when they make a connection. The star lets Louise into her world and becomes her friend. It’s the dream of every fan who has ever lived.
A typical jukebox musical alternates songs and biographical snippets. This inventive production thinks outside the jukebox. That said, it’s still a jukebox musical, complete with a well-oiled country band (aka “Bodacious Bobcats”) serving up solid renditions of Patsy Cline’s hits, including “Walking After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Sweet Dreams” and “Crazy.” The hardworking band is comprised of Skip Ellis on lap steel and rhythm guitar; Chuck Davis on bass guitar; Tony Bruno on drums; and music director Dr. Justin P. Cowan on keyboard. (Cowan’s arrangements sound a tad less syrupy than the originals. At least to my ear.)
The main attraction is Jones’ portrayal of Patsy Cline. Jones doesn’t so much portray the beloved singer as channel her. To emulate a first-rate singer, you need a voice to match. Jones has definitely got it. Beyond sound, she evokes Patsy Cline’s warmth, good-heartedness and grit. Thanks to Susan Angermann’s costumes, she even looks like Patsy.
Greenhill’s Louise is spunky, lovable and funny … in a quirky, Southern way. She gets big laughs, especially in her bump-and-grind imitation of her character’s old car. But Greenhill doesn’t always play it for laughs. The musical revolves around a friendship. Greenhill conveys that bond, without laying it on too thick.
Kate Alexander directs with an aura of down-home folksiness and approachability. FST’s “Million Dollar Quartet” set out to electrify and impress you and made no bones about it. Alexander’s “Always … Patsy Cline” wants to be your friend.
Isabel and Moriah Curley-Clay’s honky-tonk set is a stage-within-a-stage. It’s the perfect backdrop for this show-within-a-show.
This marks FST’s third production of Swindley’s jukebox musical. Along with the hits, it delivers a love letter to a fallen star and her biggest fan. It’s sentimental, to be sure. Old-fashioned, as well. It hints of a day when fans hadn’t totally forgotten that performers were people, not products. And fans didn’t fill performers’ hearts with fear.
Those days are long gone.
But it’s good to play the old songs now and then.