Always… Patsy Cline (maybe literally)
The legacy of Patsy Cline is unassailable. Her tragic story — a young woman with a heartbreaking voice battles adversity in a male-dominated industry before dying at age 30 in a plane crash — is alone enough to gild any artist's bona fides. But Patsy Cline didn't just do all that; she also recorded those songs.
"Crazy." "Walking After Midnight." "I Fall to Pieces." And a couple a dozen others you instantly know by heart, because they are now embedded in our DNA as a species. Haunting, heartfelt, sometimes spooky, always dreamy: Patsy Cline is one of those rare and precious artists whose entire existence defies criticism.
So how, then, to review Always… Patsy Cline, the heavyweight champion of regional musical theater, playing through March 28 at Roxy's Downtown (formerly Cabaret Oldtown)? When first staged nearly 20 years ago in the same venue by the same two actresses, the production set the all-time record for performances in Wichita. Now, after two decades and hundreds and hundreds of performances around the Midwest, how does it hold up on its return to our fair city?
Perhaps it is most accurate to say the show is almost precisely as I imagined it would be — warm, folksy, sincere, charming, sentimental, rose-tinted and brimming with gently saucy good humor. What little plot there is exists primarily as a framing device for presenting the show's 14 songs, a well-curated collection from her short but relatively prolific recording career.
Certainly central to this popular production's longevity is the plain fact that Cindy Summers nails it every time she opens her mouth to sing. Yes, both she and Christine Tasheff (as Louise Seger, the real-life Texas housewife who made a lifelong friend of Cline at a concert in 1961) do a fine job with their spoken parts, ably building a winking rapport with the audience; both of these women could do this in their sleep. But then the band kicks in, and Summers steps up to the mic. The spotlight sets another of her stunning period costumes ablaze, and she starts to sing. And there it is.
Speaking of the band, music director and pianist Rick Bruhn leads an able group of musicians, though I feel they would benefit from learning the songs by heart and throwing out their sheet music. Patsy Cline's brand of country was mostly "Countrypolitan," for sure, but sight-reading songs like "Walking After Midnight" render them a little stiff. Plus watching live musicians dressed in classic Western attire sight-read is weird and distracting.
Speaking of weird and distracting: I couldn't stop looking at the funky-shaped ultra-modern guitar played by David Sewell; this play takes place in the 1960s, and the stage is entirely in period dress. Borrow somebody's Telecaster or a Gretsch or something for now, sir, and bring that one back out when the Logan's Run musical comes to town.
Here I am nitpicking, trying to find fault, but that's really all I've got. If you like the songs of Patsy Cline and, like me, wax nostalgic over the old KFDI-AM and vintage TV programming in the vein of Hee Haw and The Lawrence Welk Show, you cannot miss with Always… Patsy Cline. And that is honestly intended as an endorsement. Take your grandma and buy her an Oatmeal Cookie ice cream cocktail and when Summers breaks into "Sweet Dreams," you can cry with her. It will be awesome.