Always.., Patsy Cline

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By Philip Pearce

A VISIT TO JEWEL THEATRE COMPANY’S Always.., Patsy Cline is a lot of fun, but if you’re headed for the Colligan in Santa Cruz to see it you need to know in advance what you’re in for. It’s not, like the recent Carole King musical Beautiful, an exploration of the slings and arrows of fame and fortune in the cut-throat world of pop music. By evening’s end, all you’ve discovered, if you didn’t already know it, is that Patsy Cline was an inspired vocal innovator who made the transition from Grand Ole Opry hee-haw to top-of-the-charts pop fame. And that she became friendsc a few years before dying in a plane crash, with an affable, outgoing Texas matron named Louise Seger.

The story, such as it is, covers a night when Louise, an avid fan, arrived early for a Cline concert, and met, helped and opened her Houston home to her idol. After which they wrote to each other.

Most of this is told direct to the audience by Louise, who calls it the high point of her life (“Take me now, Lord”) but Texan Ted Swindley’s script never asks how it changed her or affected Patsy. Brief provocative wisps of Cline biography keep drifting past and become the flimsy structure on which the show strings 27 terrific musical numbers. Louise mentions, almost in passing, that Patsy was having marital problems at the time, but all that happens as a result is that Patsy sings a torchy number called “She’s Got You.” Louise discovers that while Patsy is touring she misses her children, but who they are and how she relates to them are never revealed. Patsy just sings, “If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child).” Even when Patsy dies in a plane crash, Louise simply reports the fact and mentions the Grand Ole Opry television tribute. It’s as if Swindley didn’t want this piece of real life drama to step on the pervading high-spirited feel-good atmosphere. It’s easy to think of Always…Patsy Cline as a musical, but almost impossible to think of it as a play.

All that said, Jewel has equipped it with the scenic stagecraft and high production values that have helped earn the company one of only twelve National Theatre Company grants awarded this year. A six-man combo headed by Ben Dorfan is sensationally on-target with their country-western music and the lead roles are played by two of the most gifted actresses in the Monterey Bay region.

Actually, Diana Torres Koss does most of the acting in the role of Louise. With a bouncy assurance that had the opening night crowd cheering, she strode around the stage, darted up and down the aisles in her boots and cowboy hat, “worked” the audience with countrified jokes and even scooped up a startled front-row moppet and stomped him off into a dance number.

In the title role, Julie James was a revelation to me. I knew her powers as an actress but I’d never before experienced her brilliance as a singer. More than just a vocalist, she uses standards like “Crazy,” “Your Cheating Heart” and “You Belong to Me” to produce a telling and wonderful imitation of the melodic scoops and heart-beats and yodels of Patsy Cline.

She and Torres Koss work together like a veteran show-biz team. It’s sad they couldn’t use all that talent to reveal the real ups and downs of Patsy and Louise, which are suggested more provocatively in Shaun Carroll’s director’s notes than in any of the words of the existing script.

The show plays weekends at the Colligan through December 3rd.

Photo by Steve DiBatolomeo