Can a theater reviewer who, ahem, really dislikes country music enjoy a show featuring two dozen classic country tunes? And can an audience with more music fans than Broadway buffs delight in a night at the theater? The current production of Always…Patsy Cline at the Skinner Barn
in Waitsfield answers both questions with a resounding “Yes.” Just as Cline’s hits often crossed over to climb the pop charts, this musical appeals to both ardent admirers of the singer and devotees of well-wrought drama.
Rather than attempting to cover the full sweep of Cline’s biography, Always… recounts the quirky, true story of the relationship between the star and a zealous fan who becomes a close friend. This gives the two-woman show a tight theatrical focus and a terrific context for presenting many of Cline’s songs. To be believable, it requires phenomenal talent to conjure the singer’s distinctive voice and tackle her challenging repertoire. At the Skinner Barn, Ann Harvey captures Patsy Cline’s sound and spirit in a powerful performance.
Cline first gained national attention in 1957, when Arthur Godfrey featured the 24-year-old rural Virginian on his TV and radio programs. Always... captures that moment through the reaction of Houston resident Louise Seger. The disaffected divorcee is electrified by Cline’s televised performance. “Patsy’s music — it made me feel so alive every time I heard it,” she raves. Seger becomes a super-fan, pestering her local disc jockey to play Cline tunes ceaselessly, and following every twist in her idol’s career.
Most of the play’s action takes place on the night in 1961 when Cline comes to sing in Houston. Seger drags her friends to the honky-tonk “ballroom” long before the show’s scheduled start and meets Cline, who arrives alone. Fan and singer instantly take to each other. Later, at Seger’s kitchen table, the women trade stories into the wee hours. They share marital woes and parenting joys, and forge a deep, lasting bond. Afterward, Cline writes Seger from the road frequently, signing her letters, “Love always, Patsy Cline.” The epistolary relationship advances the story — Seger reads her letters aloud throughout the play — until Cline’s life is cut short, at age 30, in a plane crash.
Ted Swindley, who created Always... in 1990, has artfully woven the songs into the storytelling. Many arise organically from dramatic situations. When the women compare man troubles in Seger’s kitchen, Cline belts out “Crazy” and “Seven Lonely Days.” Many performance-oriented settings also provide natural opportunities for Cline to sing, such as the Godfrey show, Houston ballroom, radio station and Grand Ol’ Opry.
Ann Harvey embodies Cline with stellar vocal chops and a lovely portrait of the star as polished and gracious, yet rooted. Harvey also bears a remarkable physical resemblance to the singer. Kudos to director Peter Boynton for casting his longtime colleague Harvey in the perfect role. Her earthy, expressive singing voice has tremendous power and flexibility. Especially evocative are the slower numbers: Harvey’s eyes tilt upward, with a faraway look, as her gaze grows hazy with emotion. The spiritual “Just a Closer Walk,” for example, becomes a moving bedtime prayer.
As the ballsy and unrestrained Seger, Mary Wheeler creates hilarious counterpoint to the more reserved Cline. Wheeler revels in Seger’s sassy attitude, wisecracking in a broad Texas drawl and shimmying her hips — tightly encased in sexy black pedal pushers — to emphasize important points. Wheeler’s over-the-top portrayal bursts with energy. She has the audience in stitches when she gleefully imitates absent character’s voices, such as Seger’s boss and the DJ. Her manner is delightfully deadpan as she delivers the exaggerated vocal caricatures. But Wheeler also communicates Seger’s profound connection to Cline. After the terrible news of the crash, when Cline floats back on stage to sing Cole Porter’s “True Love,” Wheeler conveys how deeply her character feels the loss.
“The Bodacious Bobacats” fuel the constant flow of music, playing onstage throughout the show. Music director Paul Lincoln leads the terrific five-member band (all sporting Western wear) from the keyboard. Costumes — always a Boynton-led team effort at the Skinner Barn — provide much of the production’s color. Wheeler remains in a loud pink floral shirt, gold earrings and black pants, but Harvey changes often into an assortment of embroidered Western duds and sparkly evening garb. Period details (pink clock radio, aqua rotary phone) lend authenticity to the spare set. The only technical glitch on opening night was occasional feedback from the wireless mics.
Before the show began, Boynton informally surveyed the opening-night audience and found that about 90 percent of them had never attended a theatrical performance at the Barn. But throughout the evening, many in the crowd sang, clapped and toe-tapped along with the songs. During one number, Wheeler and a straw-hat-wearing Boynton, who ran down from behind the soundboard, easily roped audience members into spontaneous do-si-do-ing. Attendees were vocal, even raucous, at times in cheering on the performers.
The theatergoers’ enthusiasm greatly added to the show’s infectious appeal. Even country-music haters could find Always... a whole lotta fun!
Always…Patsy Cline, directed and produced by Peter Boynton. The Skinner Barn, Waitsfield. August 12-16 at 8 p.m. $18.