There might be singers harder to pretend to be — has anyone ever done a spot-on Billie Holiday? — but Patsy Cline certainly ranks as quite the challenge. A good sneer and hip gyration can give even a Bible salesman a career as an Elvis impersonator, but we know Cline — 40 years gone this month — by her distinctive voice and phrasings, which came from way below the pretty surface.
Always . . . Patsy Cline, the two-person show at Theatre-by-the-Sea, isn’t a complete success, but the captivating voice of Cindy Summers made me, for one, wish that the singing would go on and on. Since it first hit the stage in 1990, the show has become one of the most often produced plays in the country, according to American Theatre magazine figures.
Summers has been portraying the country singer icon on and off for seven years. Though she is prettier than the soft-featured singer, Summers gets to Cline’s country soul and can embellish her voice with enough of her trademark features to make us time travel. (I’ve just been listening to recordings of Cline singing her classics, and the echoes of Summers’s takes certainly don’t suffer in comparison.)
Such formidable country standards they have become. "Crazy," written by Willie Nelson before Nashville or the IRS knew much about him. "Walkin’ After Midnight," that rhythmically catchy stroll. Cline’s definitive, soaring ride on "I Fall to Pieces." Summers tosses in the catches in the voice, the swoops, the occasional trill. But not slavishly, not trying to clone each rendition. For Cline’s real magic was in the dignity of presence that she brought to country singing — even in such barroom anthems as "It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels." Summers certainly succeeds in inhabiting the songs.
Between the songs, its a different matter in this production. Director Gary John LaRosa, who did the revue Smokey Joe’s Café in Matunuck last summer, hasn’t gotten Summers to lighten that internal load enough with the other character here, a rabid fan named Louise Seger (Louisa Flaningham). It’s one thing for Cline to maintain a reserve when a fan is gushing at her, but when she and Louise become instant friends and all but throw a two-girl pajama party, it’s as though Queen Elizabeth is deigning to pillow fight to be polite to a commoner. Did I believe for a minute that these were two giggling Southern gals exchanging heartfelt secrets till the wee hours? Nah.
The story we see is based on an actual encounter with an audience member that became a friendship, one significant enough to lead to their exchanging letters. Then, two years later, Cline died in a plane crash. The Louise character is written as a your-number-one-fan type. Louise has been swoony over the singer ever since she heard her on the radio crooning "Walkin’ After Midnight" and exclaimed, "My God! That sounds like I always wanted to sing!" Louise may very well have been fan No. 1, if such loyalty is measured by the fuss one makes. A running gag has her brow-beating a local country station DJ into playing her favorite songs whenever she demands them, if he wants to have any peace of mind.
Four years after being smitten by her songs, Louise is so thrilled that Cline is coming to Houston that she gets her boyfriend and two work friends there hours early to get a front table — finding, of course, an empty parking lot. But who has also come early and is perusing jukebox titles? Yup. Louise is excited that her idol will speak with her — Flaningham brays as much as plays Louise, losing the opportunity to underplay an overwritten stereotype, the brash but kindhearted Texas hussy. The singing star may be topping the Billboard country chart, but, "You know what?" Louise informs the audience, "Patsy was just as much us as we were."
Through Louise’s narration, and the excellent biographical essay in the program, we learn that black singers were not the only ones to get taken advantage of on their first contracts. Cline all but had to pay her first manager for the privilege of being cheated. Later, even Decca provided no road manager or even touring help — in the play, at least, Louise has to negotiate with the night club manager so Cline won’t have to sing straight through the night.
A good six-piece band of urban cowboys in black cowboy hats, complete with steel guitar and fiddle, do the rest to make the performance lots of fun. This is the last season for the present Theatre-by-the-Sea producers. Let’s hope that whoever takes over the summer barn theater keeps up their high standards.
Issue Date: August 29 - September 4, 2003
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