BY ALAN SHERROD
IIn case you weren’t paying attention, jukebox musicals are real crowd pleasers. For example, Ain’t too proudthe story of the Temptations, just finished a long tour on Broadway and started filming productions. Boys jerseya Tony winning dramatization of the success of the Four Seasons, certainly comes to mind as well as notable vehicles like Magnificent: Carole King’s Musical, Summer: The Donna Summer Musical, and probably dozens more. Engaging popular music is the essential attraction of the genre, but ultimately the long-term success of a musical depends, as with all theater, on its storytelling.
Storytelling is at the heart of Always…Patsy Cline, a production of which opened last weekend at the Clarence Brown Theater. The two-character musical, created by Ted Swindley, first appeared off-Broadway in 1997 and has enjoyed a steady stream of regional productions ever since.
Thanks to movies like Sweet Dreams with Jessica Lange as Patsy Cline, theatergoers probably know a little about the background. Cline, born in Winchester, Virginia, in 1932, rose to prominence when she won a talent contest in 1957 and appeared on the Arthur Godfrey television show. Her success came relatively quickly, appearing on the Grand Ole Opry and pairing with classic country hits like “Crazy,” “Back in Baby’s Arms,” ”I Fall to Pieces,” and “Sweet Dreams,” among many. others. In 1963, at just 30, she was killed in a minor plane crash while returning home to Nashville from an engagement. Swindley based his two-character story on letters sent by Cline to Louise Seger, an older woman from Houston whom Cline had met at a local club and bonded with, and who became one of the most big Cline fans.
In this thoroughly entertaining CBT production directed by Terry D. Alford, the narration belongs to Deanna Surber as narrator, Louise Seger, an optimistic, energetic, dedicated and determined fan. Laura Beth Wells sings the role of Patsy Cline, capturing with stunning precision in the show’s 27 musical numbers the essence, cutting edge and depth of Cline’s voice and character – an incredible achievement and reason enough to catch this show.
Alford crafted a wonderfully tight and engaging production with the help of musical director and pianist Rhonda Mayfield, who leads a six-member band onstage: J Miller (drums), Greg Horne (steel guitar), Barry Hannah (guitar ), Dave Peeples (bass) and Bethany Hankins (violin). Set designer Libby StadStad, along with lighting designer Helen Garcia-Alton, created a simple and versatile, yet beautifully colorful and eye-catching stage space that is obviously comfortable and functional for the performers. Costume designer Lauren T. Roark gave Wells plenty of surprising costume changes, ranging from western attire to ordinary plain to country elegance, all in a beautiful ’60s vibe.
The structure of Swindley’s story allows for some “local” adaptation of Surber’s character as narrator to step off stage and address the audience directly – an attempt to break the fourth wall with a “home” rebuke ” of the public to encourage participation. For some members of the public, this familiarity and participation will undeniably be free, enjoyable and fun; for others, maybe not so much. Knowing how far to go with such improvisation with the public is a difficult task.
This CBT production of Always… Patsy Cline continues Tuesday to Saturday at 7:30 p.m., Sunday at 2 p.m.; until May 15. Tickets and information