Honky-Tonk Heaven

Done wrong, a tribute show like Always...Patsy Cline could come off like one of those hokey "legends" revues packing 'em in on the main drag in Branson, Missouri. But done right, as Addison's WaterTower Theatre is doing it now, this oversimplified country-music bio can become a classy homage to one of the genre's most revered figures.

Jenny Thurman plays Patsy Cline, and she has the face and the voice of a honky-tonk angel. Trained in musical theater at Texas Wesleyan University, Thurman must have to work against her instincts so she won't sound too good.

Cline's rockabilly-influenced style torqued the notes. She'd slide up into them, always coming out just on the flat side of the key. Cline, like her pop-jazz contemporary Rosemary Clooney, pushed against the tempo. Every once in a while Cline would goose a song by injecting a Jerry Lee Lewis growl or an authentic bluegrass yodel. And you know you're listening to Patsy Cline when you hear a soft "H" before the vowels, as in "High'm crazy for tryin'/And high'm crazy for lyin'/And high'm crazy for lu-huh-vin' h'you."

Thurman expertly mimics almost all of Cline's vocal quirks, just barely missing the glottal breaks on the yodel (her "Lovesick Blues" doesn't suffer much for the lack of it). Most impressively, she captures the honey-dripping warmth of Cline's tone and her knack for putting a half-smile into even the saddest lyric. When she sings, "I've got your picture...she's got you," you believe her. Patsy Cline knows the trouble the other woman is in for.

With 27 songs and a life story to get across in just more than two hours, this show has to rest on more than a good Cline sound-alike. Ted Swindley's script imbues Always...Patsy Cline with only a sliver of a storyline, and he uses a narrator, the green-as-a-gourd Louise Seger, played here by wiry Deborah Jolly, to tell it. The Seger character spouts all the exposition about Cline's career, and she talks directly to the audience with a down-home, over-the-fence intimacy. At one point she bounces off the stage to grab a man from the audience for a quick swing around the dance floor. Corny but cute.

Seger and Cline became real-life friends around 1961. Seger had been a fan of Cline's long before meeting her at a Houston roadhouse where the singer had a gig. They bonded over girl talk and beer and corresponded right up until Cline's death in a plane crash in 1963 at age 30. In the show, they interact only briefly in the roadhouse scene, and dramatically it's the strongest segment. The rest of the time, Seger is present only to cue up more songs.

A five-piece band and four cowboy-hatted boy singers share the stage throughout, occupying an attractive set (by David C. Yates) that consists of levels of concentric circles splashed with a silver and pink checkerboard pattern. For this show, the audience space at WaterTower has been reconfigured yet again, with the stage thrust into the crowd and the seats arranged around three sides of it.

The band, by the way, is just dandy, particularly Buddie Hrabal on steel guitar and musical director Mark A. Mullino on piano. They only get to cut loose a couple of times, mostly staying low-key and playing not too loudly in the shadows upstage.

Always in the spotlight out front is Thurman as Patsy Cline, segueing from song to song, mood to mood, seamlessly. Without much in the way of dialogue to help her establish Cline's persona, Thurman must use the nuances of her singing voice and her physical silhouette, early on showing Cline's nervousness onstage (in a flashy homemade squaw skirt) and later her weariness from months of one-nighters.

Thurman's performance is remarkable. Her singing voice seems rooted somewhere down around her metatarsal arch, picking up oomph as the notes travel up through her zaftig frame.

"I never forgot that voice, and I never forgot the feeling it gave me," Louise Seger says about Cline in the show.

That's precisely why Always...Patsy Cline is worth seeing. Besides the sheer enjoyment of listening to Thurman sing her heart out through all those great Cline tunes, it's impossible not to replay one's personal soundtrack of life as the songs pile up. Good times and bad rush back, underscored by memories linked to Cline's throaty renditions of "Back in Baby's Arms," "Walkin' After Midnight," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "Sweet Dreams," "Crazy" (Willie Nelson's first hit as a songwriter), "Faded Love" and "If You've Got Leavin' on Your Mind."

We all know these songs, even those of us who never saw Patsy Cline on The Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts TV show or heard her voice coming out of a nickel-a-tune jukebox at an honest-to-gosh drive-in. These songs have never gone away. They've been played in countless movies and TV shows and were revived to great acclaim on k.d. lang's fine 1988 Shadowland album.

The life story of the singer who started life as Virginia Patterson Hensely also has been the subject of two films over the past 20 years, and they're the main source material for what many of us think we remember of the real Patsy Cline. Coal Miner's Daughter was the 1980 hit movie bio of Loretta Lynn, but her friendship with Cline and the effect of Cline's death on Lynn were major plot points. Beverly D'Angelo looked just right for the part in that film, and she did her own singing in the role of Cline opposite Sissy Spacek's Oscar-winning turn as Lynn. Jessica Lange went brunette to play Cline in 1985's Sweet Dreams, in which she merely lip-synched the songs.

The flaw in Swindley's script for Always...Patsy Cline, which was vetted and licensed by the Cline estate and family members, is that it doesn't go anywhere near the darker, more interesting moments of the star's life. Cline had an abusive upbringing and a raucous romantic history, falling into a series of affairs with older men starting when she was a teen-ager. She met and fell in love with her last husband, Charlie Dick, while still married to Gerald Cline. Married to Dick, she took up with a manager who talked her into signing away most of the profitable royalty rights to her hit songs, a deal that left her owing him money. As chronicled in Honky Tonk Angel, the 1993 Cline biography by Ellis Nassour, the singer had a volatile temper and suffered at least one nervous breakdown. She also survived two serious car accidents. She had only one major hit before she died in '63 because half the songs she'd recorded hadn't yet been released as singles.

All that would make good drama that's not to be found in Always...Patsy Cline, a show that reveals too little about a star who died too soon. WaterTower Theatre was lucky to land a talent like Jenny Thurman for the lead. Her artistry elevates the show above its concept. Through her voice we celebrate all those grand old tunes that have long outlived their original singer.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner

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