CURTAIN CALLS: Still crazy for ‘Patsy Cline’

She goes ‘walking after midnight’, she ‘falls to pieces’, and – admit it – ‘she’s got you’. You don’t have to be ‘crazy’ to take a show impersonating the great Patsy Cline to her home state, but you do have to be good.

Riverside kicks off its 21st season, and scores on some major fronts with Ted Swindley’s flexible slice-of-life, song driven “Always…Patsy Cline.” Like all tribute shows, it is neither musical nor straight drama, but has elements of both as it attempts to resurrect memory of a shooting star who died at the height of fame.  Similar theatrical treatments for artists such as Buddy Holly, Hank Williams, and Janis Joplin transport audiences to the time when these were the sounds behind our lives. Patsy Cline ranks with the best of them.

There were many possible angles to take, but Swindley opted to tell the story through the lens of an ordinary housewife named Louise Seger whose idol worship of Cline led to their 1961 meeting before a concert in Houston. What followed was a close friendship and letters which the country star signed “love always, Patsy Cline.”

One thing sets this production apart from countless other Patsy Cline tributes: the fortuitous pairing of Carter Calvert in the title role and Sally Struthers as Louise. What could be a pleasantly pastel evening of mildly amusing narrative and great songs is now a kick-to-the-head, thousand-watt star power night of music and comedy.

In her fifth guest appearance in a Riverside production, the inimitable Sally Struthers scoops the audience up in the palm of her hand and walks away. Her genius for physical comedy, mime, and timing punches up what is actually a simple story. From the moment she first heard “The Cline” on her local radio station, to endless telephone calls to the deejay, to the drum-accented “sexy dude” ride to the grand ballroom in Houston where her idol would appear – these accounts left the audience on my visit helpless with laughter.

Nowhere was her professional control and comic grace more on display than in the selecting of a willing volunteer to come up on stage and dance with her. This is not as easy as it looks, but thanks to her well-honed acumen, it created a delightful moment of audience cohesiveness.

If there’s one word that comes to mind regarding Sally Struthers the performer, it’s “generous”; a largeness of personality and spirit that embraces a role as it embraces the house. Playing opposite her, Carter Calvert complements that special energy. Not only must she channel the look and sound of the historical Patsy, she must do it with an authority that convinces us that this is the Patsy that Louise would idolize. It doesn’t happen with the same powerhouse wattage, which would be overwhelming, but with a harmonizing friendliness and calm.

Backed by a live six-piece band (including Ms. Calvert’s husband on drums) all the songs we came for, twenty-six in total, get their due. While Ms. Calvert sings comfortably in Patsy’s range and has that signature yodel down pat, she was just as authentic in songs that we associate with other performers, such as “San Antonio Rose” and “Love Sick Blues.” My personal favorite, aside from the obvious ones, was “You Belong To Me.”

Technical support for this show is solidly on track. Riverside’s scenic department gets credit for the set, a blameless re-creation of the standard design used for this kind of tribute show. With live band upstage, center downstage represents performance venues from honky-tonks to Arthur Godrey’s radio show to Grand Ole Opry.  Stage right and left, nicely detailed, suggest interiors – Louise’s kitchen as well as a corner of the Houston ballroom.

Having seen versions of this script before, I’m led to believe that there is a certain flexibility built into the material. At heart it is a vehicle for reviving the songs of the great Cline while getting a cutaway view of her life through the firsthand experience of a friend and fan.

There is no great emotional upheaval here, as the fact of her tragic death is as much a part of her story as her great voice. For that reason, when the news of her death comes, it is not overplayed.  There is the appropriate somberness to be sure, but you can’t end a joyful evening on a somber note, and Ms Cline is resurrected to lead us in a foot-stomping rendition of “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home.”

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