Always…Patsy Cline – Barber Theatre (Evanston, IL)
Louise Seger would scrimp on groceries for a month to be able to don her red cowboy boots and yellow fringed skirt and go see the Northlight Theatre’s Chicago production of “Always…Patsy Cline”. Seger became Cline’s most famous fan with the 1981 publication of Ellis Nassour’s biography Patsy Cline, reissued in 1993 as Honky Tonk Angel: The Intimate Story of Patsy Cline. Nassour gives Seger only a handful of pages, mostly setting up the singer’s letters to her as first-person accounts.
Seger assumes a larger, fictional role as narrator in the tribute “Always…Patsy Cline”, a showcase for 22 of Cline’s personal favorite and most familiar tunes. As Seger, Sarah Underwood relates affectingly the time Cline spent with her, but barely alludes to Cline’s bum record deals before Decca, the wan nature of that label’s support for its early Cline releases, the contentious nature of her second marriage, and the earthy details of Cline’s earlier liaisons, from the Blue Ridge of Virginia to the bright lights of Nashville.
Cline’s voice is the play’s centerpiece. In the Northlight production, Megon McDonough’s replication of it is often eerie. That a singer of such range and power as McDonough occasionally underachieves simply illustrates the catalog of ways Cline’s voice was extraordinary. The slightest lapse in diction, the briefest thinning on the high notes, the merest catch in that astonishing slide keep the spell from taking hold and carrying you through. How daring even to attempt to fool any 20th-century audience with “Sweet Dreams”! The same is true for the many other selections found on Patsy Cline’s Greatest Hits.
The band is little help. The distance between the four musicians, while attractive staging, seems to prevent their playing off each other. Compounding the problem is the need to play at a volume level the crankiest landlord might approve.
What wins you over is the dynamic between fan and star, distilled into tears at the moment Seger shares, flatly, wistfully, how she learned of Cline’s death. As she retreats quietly into her last letter from the singer, Cline resumes the stage, approaches her and stands beside her singing Cole Porter’s “True Love”.
Written by Ted Swindley, “Always…Patsy Cline” ran two years at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium (with current Asylum Records artist Mandy Barnett in the lead role), and was performed at the storied Spoleto Festival in Charleston, S.C., as well as by repertory companies throughout the United States. The Northlight production is expected to resume after a January hiatus.