Patsy Cline production in Norfolk is safe choice, and a crowd-pleaser
Patsy Cline ... always?
Well, at least again, if not always.
One more time, Virginia Stage Company gambles that the legendary popularity of country balladeer Patsy Cline has not faded. It opens its 40th season with “Always ... Patsy Cline” featuring 27 songs given life by the Winchester native who weaved her spell from honky tonks to concert halls (as the first female country singer to play Carnegie Hall) and remains in the public imagination long after her 1963 death in a plane crash.
The show, one of the most popular productions in the company’s history, is more a tribute-concert than theater, strictly speaking, but only the “serious” theater folks would have qualms. (And, understandably, will.)
We remain susceptible to, yet again, “fall to pieces” over Miss Patsy’s aura of lost love, “walking after midnight” and lamenting “sweet dreams.” When she is best re-created, we can see why and how she has driven fans “crazy” with her singing.
As a supreme cross-over singer, she is no longer a guilty pleasure – not even, perhaps, by the theater snobs who object to the prepackaged look of this import with a lack of cohesive story arc. They are the same faithfuls who labored for decades to establish Virginia Stage Company as our first all-equity (read that professional) theater with the rightful expectation that it, then, must necessarily be the flagship programmer for local theater. Things have gotten relaxed with the Equity agreements along with an expansion of productions to encompass local performers.
Opening the 40th season with this jukebox musical is neither original nor innovative. It is, however, an amusing, escapist outing that caters to those who want theater to be light and nonthreatening.
The director is Amy Jones, repeating a similar assignment guiding the even more vague Johnny Cash opener last year. Ted Swindley’s book, which might have been written in crayon, refers to Cline’s trouble with men and marriage, but always rolls in the next song quickly, perhaps wisely.
Patsy Cline needed no “Me Too” movement to proclaim herself as a strong woman onstage, at the altar or in the bedroom – thriving and breaking ground in a business largely run by men. That character awaits a writer who has not yet surfaced.
Sandia Ahlers is not the best of the Patsy imitators who have crossed local stages, but she is not the worst either. She fails to capture what should be the chilling moment when “Sweet Dreams’’ soars into the heaven and hell of lost love. Strangely, and too noticeably, Ahlers emphasizes her version of a many-syllabled Southern accent for some of the lyrics. She fares best when it comes to the lower register.
The other woman in the two-character cast is a Texas housewife who befriends Cline. Linda Edwards plays Louise Seger, who is part narrator, part cheerleader, part comic relief and mostly filler. She said “Y’all” a lot, but many of her almost frenzied efforts to solicit audience participation fell embarrassing short. Edwards is a dynamite-type performer who is not going to go faintly into the night, even if her character is largely relegated to cheerleading Patsy’s odyssey – “Miss Patsy Cline tore the roof off that honky tonk place that night!”
It is unfortunate that the audience is encouraged to snooze when she comes on between songs – a factor that she prevents by sheer volume and determination. Edwards has played the title role at other times, and we’d like to see her do it here.
The song list is blessed with some comparative rarities to balance the familiars. We love to be reminded that “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” or recall the plight of a woman who has the memories but, as the song states: “She’s Got You.” “True Love,” which was a million-seller hit for the unlikely duet of Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, seems an anomaly, and “Bill Bailey” seems an odd choice as a finale.
The sisterhood of empowerment, which might have been developed, is lacking, as is any real sense of theater. But the songs carry it. And, indeed, the performance rallied the folks in the audience to a standing ovation.
Everything depends on the ability of the central performer to replicate the originals. The verdict, succinctly, is: close enough.