Story: Louise Seger, a single mother with two young children, becomes an instant fan of rising young country singer Patsy Cline when she hears the latter perform on The Arthur Godfrey Talent Show on CBS in 1957.
Soon she is regularly pestering the local disk jockey with requests for tunes by Cline. In 1961, when she learns that Patsy will be performing at Houston’s Esquire Ballroom, she and her boyfriend and boss arrive 90 minutes early for the concert.
Surprisingly, they find Patsy there alone, checking on details for her upcoming show. Louise introduces herself and Patsy suggests that she join Louise’s group at their table in between performing tunes. At the end of a long evening, Patsy accepts Louise’s invitation to come back to Louise's house, where they talk into the night and find that they have much in common.
They developed a friendship that would last until Patsy’s fatal plane crash in1963. Always…Patsy Cline focuses on Louise’s reminiscences of Patsy and the unusual bond between the down-home performer and her loyal fan turned devoted friend.
Highlights: Conceived and originally directed by Ted Swindley and first performed in 1988 in Houston, Always…Patsy Cline is considered one of the most produced shows in America (including Off-Broadway) and beyond in countries such as the United Kingdom, Ireland and Australia.
Stages St. Louis opened its 2013 season with the sizzling local debut of performer Jacqueline Petroccia in the title role alongside savvy Stages veteran Zoe Vonder Haar as Louise. The usually staid albeit appreciative Stages audience uncharacteristically was whoopin’ and hollerin’ throughout the media night performance of the two-character, two-act show that romps through two brisk hours under Michael Hamilton’s sure-handed and meticulous direction.
Based on the strength of a string of sold-out performances, Stages executive director Jack Lane began scouting for another location to showcase the stellar Stages production for a return presentation in 2014. Eventually The Playhouse at Westport Plaza was selected for a two-month engagement that opened April 22 and will run through at least June 22, with another week already tacked on to the scheduled run.
Other Info: If the media night audience on April 25 was any indication, Always…Patsy Cline might be filling the Stages coffers for quite a while again. With Vonder Haar reprising her role as the tall-talking Louise, which garnered her the 2013 St. Louis Theater Circle Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical, and Petroccia (a St. Louis Theater Circle nominee for Best Actress in a Musical) back in fine fettle as the friendly and indomitable song stylist, Always…Patsy Cline is just as much fun the second time around.
Accompanied by musical director Lisa Campbell Albert and a ‘live,’ six-piece band portraying Cline’s back-up group, The Bodacious Bobcats, this version of Always…Patsy Cline is a feel-good effort from start to finish. Joining Albert behind the scrim at stage left for good times and grand twanging are John Higgins on pedal steel guitar, Jon Ferber playing electric guitar, Kevin Buckley on acoustic guitar and fiddle, Vince Corkery on bass and drummer Don Drewett.
Petroccia, who has portrayed “The Cline” in three previous productions of this upbeat and toe-tapping hootenanny, displays a clear and powerful voice as well as a marked ability to shape driving, upbeat tunes with gusto or layer a ballad with a soft, velvet sheen. The show features 27 numbers, many of them from the Patsy Cline songbook in a career that ended abruptly at age 30.
Cline took songs penned by such songwriters as Willie Nelson (Crazy), Don Hecht and Alan Block (Walkin’ After Midnight), Hank Cochran and Harlan Howard (I Fall to Pieces), Don Gibson (Sweet Dreams) and even Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield (Stupid Cupid) and stamped each with her infectious style.
Vonder Haar adds warmth and humor as adoring fan Louise, who later becomes a pen pal of Cline until the latter’s death, regularly receiving letters signed, “Love Always, Patsy Cline.” Vonder Haar even traipses through the aisles casually bantering with the audience, confiscating a man at one point for an impromptu dance on stage to one of Patsy’s tunes.
James Wolk’s set design, which depicts Louise’s early ‘60s kitchen at stage right (complete with a jukebox inside a washing machine) and a den of sorts at stage left from a later era, is condensed a bit on the cozy Playhouse stage. Wolk’s sheer curtain in front of the band at the back of stage left extends to a radio booth at back center where Patsy performs periodically.
Matthew McCarthy’s lighting design cleverly illuminates Louise’s kitchen radio when she’s listening to Patsy on the local country station, and Lou Bird’s costumes keep Petroccia scrambling as she handsomely depicts Patsy’s attire from her beginnings in simple cotton dresses to her more sophisticated romps in a pair of gold-colored slacks, as well as Louise’s down-home western duds.
Hearing Petroccia take command of a roster of plaintive ballads and good-time country tunes, it’s easy to tell how Patsy Cline crossed over so successfully onto the pop charts in her singular and tragically short career.
Musical: Always…Patsy Cline
Company: Stages St. Louis
Venue: The Playhouse at Westport Plaza
Dates: Through June 22
Tickets: $53-$63; contact 821-2407 or stagesstlouis.org
Rating: A 5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Peter Wochniak