Cline’s music ‘Always’ a winner
Show an entertaining look at relationship between star, fan
STONEHAM — Early on in “Always . . . Patsy Cline,’’ the narrator mentions that she used to listen to the late country crooner on a radio station similar to the one you find at 102.5 on the FM dial. That would be Boston’s contemporary country music station, WKLB.
When that local reference falls flat at Stoneham Theatre, she cocks her hip and curls her lip at the crowd. “Y’all from around here?’’
But that’s the beauty of “Always . . . Patsy Cline.’’ You don’t have to know or even like country music to appreciate this show about the country icon, whose legacy has remained timeless 47 years after her death in a plane crash. On the other hand, it gives you little to think about after two entertaining hours of Cline songs expertly rendered by Becky Barta. Truth be told, that’s probably enough for most people.
The show, at Stoneham Theatre through July 25, is based on the true story of how a Texas fan, Louise Seger (Joy Hawkins), befriended Cline in 1961 and struck up a pen-pal friendship. It’s familiar territory for Barta and Hawkins, who shared this Stoneham stage in the same roles back in 2004. This time around Hawkins also directs the production.
The play’s title refers to how Cline would sign her letters to Seger (known here simply as Louise), but don’t be fooled: “Always . . . Patsy Cline’’ isn’t really about the singer. It’s more of a meditation on why we’re drawn to artists, why their stories speak so intimately to our own. For the show’s Louise, it was Patsy’s voice, her ability to sound regal when she was clearly hurting inside. Patsy was the sophisticated lady who could throw back a Schlitz with the best of them.
The story is told from Louise’s perspective, from the first time she heard Patsy on Arthur Godfrey’s television show to the night she met the singer at a local honky tonk and they became fast friends. As the narrator, Hawkins inhabits her role like a natural born spitfire; she’s Flo, the gum-snapping waitress from “Alice,’’ if she were portrayed by the late Rue McClanahan. Her Louise strikes a believable balance between slobbering fan (“Lord, take me now,’’ she says deadpan after her first encounter with Patsy) and a kindred spirit who can relate to the singer’s stormy personal life.
As Patsy, Barta is a hoot, the kind of woman who seems like a ma’am on her records, but acts like a gal. Barta has been stepping into these cowgirl boots in various “Always’’ productions since 1995, and her comfort with the role is obvious. With more than two dozen numbers to perform, the show demands a great deal from Barta as a singer, but little as an actress. Still, she summons an enormous amount of emotion through the songs. (Accordingly, Barta has an album for sale in the lobby; it’s called “Crazy . . . and Then Some.’’)
She’s not expected to be a carbon copy of Cline, but Barta does conjure the qualities that made the singer so inimitable. She’s nailed the way Cline could slide into a note before cutting it off with a little catch in her throat or maybe grate it into a nasty growl. At times, Barta hams it up more than Cline would have, and sometimes you wish the show would let her play it straight. “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray’’ is wrung dry for belly laughs as Hawkins blubbers and puffs away her cares while Barta sings.
Lending a barroom vibe to the set, the songs come to life through a six-piece band known as the Bodacious Bobcats (Billy Bob, Ray Bob, you get the idea), led by music director Jim Rice on keyboards. From the twinkling piano melody of “Crazy’’ to the decrescendo violin introduction on “Sweet Dreams,’’ they nimbly back Barta through a kaleidoscope of Cline’s catalog. Hits and misses, they’re all here: “Walkin’ After Midnight,’’ “I Fall to Pieces,’’ “She’s Got You,’’ and so on.
Occasionally, though, the show loses its breath in service to shoe-horning them all in, and a few don’t quite fit within the context of the script. When Barta gives a rousing rendition of the gospel standard “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,’’ it feels like pure hokum, tugging at our heartstrings just because it can. Cheap sentiment isn’t necessary when you’ve got a cast and songs this good.
James Reed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.