Sandia Ahlers has spent much of her young professional life being Patsy Cline, and it’s easy for the actress to slip into the country music singer’s voice.
When she’s not onstage, she works as a server at a New York City restaurant, and the lilt of Cline’s voice can come in handy.
“It’s funny,” she said, laughing and easing into the accent, “I guess my nice server voice just goes a little Southern.”
Ahlers is starring in the Virginia Stage Company’s season-opening production, “Always ... Patsy Cline.”
It’s one of the most popular shows the theater has presented. Maybe that’s because Cline was a Virginia girl, born in Winchester in 1932. Or because it’s filled with the many hit songs generated by one of the century’s most acclaimed singers, like “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “She’s Got You” and “Crazy.” Or maybe it’s because the play highlights the way Cline connected so genuinely to her audience, with a plot built around her friendship with a fan.
Ahlers has been handed the keys to the VSC’s mint, and she bears the weight of measuring up to one of country music’s greatest voices, and one of the singing world’s greatest storytellers.
“Patsy became famous because she was so expressive, I mean just unapologetically expressive,” Ahlers said. At the end of the ballad “Faded Love,” for example “she has this iconic inhale. She was like, ‘oh-h-h-h-h’ ... because she actually started crying when she was actually recording.”
It would be “a little ridiculous” to try to imitate that, Ahlers said, but studying Cline has shown her the right path: “Just allowing the story in the song to really take place in her heart. Really tell that story. What is happening right now.”
“Always ... Patsy Cline” gives Ahlers the chance to sing 27 songs while telling the story of Cline’s friendship with a fan, Louise Seger, who befriended the star in a Texas honky-tonk in 1961.
Seger was a huge fan, and a “firecracker,” Ahlers said, so when she was with some friends at a Houston ballroom and saw Cline enter by herself well before her show was to start, she didn’t hold back.
“She’s kind of starstruck but at the same time she’s like, ‘Hey you want to come over and stay with us?’ ”
The two independent spirits hit it off so well that after the show Cline accepted Seger’s invitation to come to her house. Cline enjoyed her time with Seger so much that she exchanged phone numbers and addresses with her new friend, and they wrote and talked on the phone regularly until Cline’s death in a plane crash in 1963.
Ahlers said she has spent enough time as an actress being sent off on her own to do a play or performance to understand why Cline might connect so deeply with a fellow firecracker. Ahlers graduated in spring 2014 from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor of fine arts degree and started working at Universal Studios in Orlando, playing the Bride of Frankenstein – “which was super fun.”
She’s done regional theater and nation tours, including starring in “A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline,” another musical based on the singer’s life.
Ahlers has spent about a year and a half of her roughly four years as a pro playing and singing as Cline.
“She really helped me through a tough time,” Ahlers said. Since her college days, her energies were spent in many directions on many projects. “ ‘Patsy’ was the first time that I really just got to do something, start to finish all the way through the whole thing.”
Entering into the role and a national tour, putting a show on her shoulders, singing 30 some songs day after day, keeping up with vocal maintenance, “It looked a little like, ‘I hope I can – I think I can do it.’ ”
Now, she can pull back her shoulders, stand tall and say, “Yes, I can absolutely do this.”
The role has also helped her realize how deeply an audience can connect with a performer. Each night, as she does Cline’s hits, she’ll see different people light up in the audience with recognition and delight. “This was their song,” she said. “Their first dance ... their moonlit evening.”
And when she greeted people after shows, still in costume, they sometimes forgot that she’s just playing Patsy Cline.
“They just get excited,” Ahlers said. “Every once in awhile somebody would come up and be, like, ‘Ohhhh!’ ... They forget that I’m not Patsy Cline.”
“I was on tour in Virginia. This little girl came up to me, I will never forget her. She must have been like 3 years old. And she just grabbed my skirt, which you’re not supposed to do, but she was really cute. So, she grabbed my skirt and said ‘Hi, I’m Patsy Cline’s cousin!’ And I was just like ... ‘Wow. Cool!’ And she was just so excited.”
Now, Ahlers is excited to be playing Patsy Cline in Virginia again, renewing her own connection to the star and seeing who comes out for the show with their own personal connection.