She's got you

Got any out-of-town friends, relatives, clients or other cadgers coming to visit in the next few months?

If so, consider taking them to see A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, which is playing at the Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth through June. Not only will your guests get to wander around a revitalized Cowtown, which, thanks to those benevolent billionaires, the Basses, is looking pretty good these days; they'll also get to see a fun show that won't tread on anyone's religious, political, or moral sensibilities, a plus where uptight progenitors or conservative bidness associates are concerned.

This production, not to be confused with Always....Patsy Cline, another theatrical Cline bio that premiered locally at Theatre Three a few years ago, retells the ill-fated country diva's life through a mock radio tribute circa 1960 hosted by a fictional, composite DJ called Little Big Man. The jock introduces each Cline record with a brief homily about what Cline was doing or feeling around the time of the record's release. He then spins the disc, and Lisa Layne, the actress who plays P.C., comes on stage and sings the song in question. She's backed by a first-rate country quintet, and occasionally will exchange lines of patter with the band to express her mood of the moment.

The show is officially sanctioned (and, presumably, sanitized) by the Cline estate and by the singer's second husband, Charlie Dick, who serves as "production advisor." We therefore don't get to see much of the darker side of Cline's personality, including her Elvis-like appetite for sex and stimulants, nor is there much attempt to probe the antecedents of the pain reflected in her extraordinary voice. This is no Coal Miner's Daughter, and it doesn't pretend to be. Instead, it's more of an approximation of what a Cline performance was like during the various stages of her career.

It begins with Cline's first radio broadcast, in which the nervous but resolute 14-year-old amateur impresses some good-ol'-boy band members with both her preternaturally large pipes and her spunk. It concludes with a mature, self-assured Cline crossing a cultural barrier by bringing country music to Carnegie Hall.

Though the play has less meat than Kate Moss, it is a perfectly enjoyable showcase for Lisa Layne's superb singing. A homegrown product, Layne spent five years on the club circuit with Vince Vance and the Valiants and still receives considerable airplay for the seasonal favorite, "All I Want for Christmas is You." She's now a demo singer in Nashville angling for a record contract. This show should open a few doors for her.

Layne has a terrific voice, and she has captured Cline's phrasing down to the last anguished wail. Close your eyes--much of this play is best appreciated sightless--and you'll be surprised to hear just how meticulous a vocal recreation this is. The emphasis here is on recreation, not imitation. Layne goes beyond the kind of hammy aping that makes right-thinking people tremble at the thought of attending a celebrity sound-alike act. Unlike the script, she gets inside of Cline and puts on a concert that stands up on its own, regardless of whatever else is going on onstage.

Layne sings 21 numbers, and never flags throughout, though the emotional highlight comes in the first act with Layne's rendition of "Life's Railway to Heaven." This haunting, hymnlike number is performed virtually a cappella, with only Buddy Hrabal's soulful steel guitar as accompaniment. This tune alone, coupled with the fine acoustics at the Caravan of Dreams (which is one of the nicest concert venues in the Metroplex), is worth the price of admission. Throw in the guitar picking of Bill Ham (former sideman for Sonny and Cher, the Carpenters, and Bread) and the precision playing of veteran rhythm men Jay Adkins and Rick Rogers, and you've got the makings of a band ready to go on tour, sans the play.

However, Layne needs a break between tunes, so while she's resting, Alan Barnes, who plays the DJ and a series of comics who warm up the audience between Cline's appearances, takes the stage. He does a creditable job with the possum-grease material ("My wife's cooking is sooo bad the flies pitched in and bought her a screen door." "What do they call a Ford pickup in Arkansas? The bridal suite."), but the Vegas lounge material is no better than Vegas lounge material usually is. Better are the band's and Barnes' renditions of various commercial jingles that dominated the airwaves in the early '60s, including the Ajax "stronger than dirt" number and the commercials for Mr. Clean.

At any rate, back comes Layne to sing another gospel-tinged number, "Just a Closer Walk With Thee," a tune of considerable power that seems to want to break out from the confines of its country arrangement here. To get a feel for this song's true potential, check out Van Morrison's version, with its raucous, free-association rap, on the double-CD Hymns to the Silence. Now that's a closer walk with the man upstairs.

In the second act, Layne sings most of Cline's biggest hits, including "Leavin' on Your Mind," "She's Got You," "Back in Baby's Arms," "I Fall to Pieces," and, of course, the Willie Nelson classic, "Crazy." They are definitely crowd pleasers, and Layne certainly earns her standing ovation, but they aren't quite as interesting as the lesser-known tunes of the first act.

At play's end, Little Big Man reads the sad news that comes over the wire about Patsy Cline going down in the private plane she bought for her guitarist-manager. Though the play as written can't pull much pathos out of this moment, Layne's voice provides a poignant reminder of what music fans lost that day.

It's a reminder worth hearing.

A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline plays through June 29 at Caravan of Dreams in Fort Worth. Call (817) 429-4000.

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P.b. Miller

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