Review: ‘Always…Patsy Cline’

Christina Hall (left) as Patsy Cline and Harmony France as Louise Seger in “Always … Patsy Cline.” (Photo by Michael Brosilow)

RECOMMENDED

Where: Firebrand Theatre
at The Den Theatre’s Janet Bookspan Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave.
When: through Jan. 4, 2020
Tickets: $40; $50 VIP cabaret table
Tickets available at firebrandtheatre.org.
Phone:773-697-3830

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

When I saw “Always…Patsy Cline” five years ago, I was less than impressed by Ted Swindley’s 1988  musical about the relationship between the famous country singer and uber-fan Louise Seger, the Houston housewife who met her idol at a concert in 1961 at a local honkytonk and took her home for bacon, eggs, and all-night girlie talk before arranging a surprise visit to her favorite radio station and the DJ she’d asked to play Cline’s records daily. Their time together concluded with a trip to the airport.

The story is told entirely through Seger’s eyes, and the main problem was that the actor who played her did such a forceful job that she became the heroine. We learned far more about her that we wanted to know, while Cline remained a combination of enigmatic cipher and generic character rather than being a woman who was far more complicated than the down-home girl portrayed and entirely capable of holding her own in an industry dominated by men.

Christina Hall, who played Cline, had the voice for the iconic songs, such as “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy,” as well as for the forays into rock ‘n’ roll, traditional hymns, and other genres. However, in the lower registers, the lyrics got swallowed up a little, and the five-man band – dubbed the “Bodacious Bobcats” – tended to drown her out, though the acoustics of the intimate space may have been partly to blame.

Surprisingly, Firebrand Theatre’s production at The Den Theatre is a thoroughly enjoyable take on the same material proving, I guess, that success is all in the details. The show is tucked comfortably into the cozy Janet Bookspan Theatre, which has been convincingly transformed into a honkytonk complete with cafe tables by scenic designer Lauren Nichols, lighting designer Cat Wilson, and props designer/scenic decorator Rachelle “Rocky” Kolecke.

Best of all, Giselle Castro’s sound design and engineering is topnotch, so that the “Bodacious Bobcats” – Andra Velis Simon (music director/conductor/keyboard), Steven Romero Schaeffer (guitars), Emma Sheikh (fiddle) and Tina Muñoz Pandya (drums) – are in balance with the singer and sound great, too.

Under savvy director Brigitte Ditmars, Firebrand’s artistic director Harmony France and Christina Hall are alternating in the roles of Cline and Seger. The night I saw the show, Hall was Cline, and I found her performance more nuanced than before. That may have been because of her rapport with France’s Seger, a warm presence who radiates awe and admiration for her new friend. Yet when they discuss their marriages, children, and other matters, they really do seem to be on equal footing.

Swindley’s script, which takes its title from the “love always” sign-off that Cline used in her letters to

Seger after their meeting, still has flaws. Drawn from a section of Ellis Nassour’s biography “Honky Tonk Angel,” for one thing it winds down rather anticlimactically with selections from those letters received before Cline’s untimely death at age 30 in 1963.

Still, the main take-away from “Always…Patsy Cline” is the beauty as well as the diversity of the short-lived singer’s music. Happily, the program lists all 27 songs, which range from “Anytime” to “Walkin’ After Midnight.” The way they’re worked into the story doesn’t always make complete sense, but Hall delivers one after another with heart-felt emotion. I suspect she and France are equally engaging with their roles reversed, so consider seeing this charmer either way.