I’m not one for country music. Sure, I bought that Faith Hill album, I enjoyed Taylor Swift’s Red. And we all have that one friend who makes country more than a little acceptable. So on the invitation of a friend, I attended the dress rehearsal / soft opening of Always… Patsy Cline at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, and can easily recommend it as an evening well spent. #mydayinla #alwayspatsycline
A four-piece band walks onstage to play an overture, followed by a pair of songs sung by our re-enactment of Patsy (portrayed with grace by Cori Cable Kidder). The play actually starts with our narrator, a fictionalized version of Louise Seger (played with humor and charm by Nikki D’Amico as written by Ted Swindley), soliloquizing about how Patsy entered her life. The nature of live theater is for the level of acting to be more “exaggerated” than film or tv. But after the third song, the staging begins to hit its stride, drawing on the audience with an engaging story. Seger’s story, a chain of personal anecdotes about Cline, and the development of their very real friendship, draws you in with its mixture of personable story and the relatable nature of Country music lyrics (even if you’re not a fan). Much of the music is actually diegetic, not just spontaneous singing by the characters (though there’s a fair amount of that too).
In terms of the production, the Sierra Madre Playhouse defies categorization. Its size (99 seats) would suggest a more “community theater” experience. Yet this would be an error; the Playhouse is a professional (if small), unionized house. The actors are paid and highly skilled experts of their craft. The quality of this production surpasses even most high-end university stagings. Even on its limited means, director Robert Marra’s production (cast, set, and all) could easily play in a much larger house, even five times bigger. I was encouraged to hear that opening night is sold out.
Musically, Sean Paxton’s band lends itself to a proto-roots-rock showcase. Cline is often credited for popularizing the “Nashville sound”, a version of Country-Western that reached genuine pop status at the end of the 20th Century and held its popularity well into the 21st. It demonstrates just how indebted to Appalachia and the South that modern American pop music is. Much of it has been filtered through Gospel, Jazz, and the Black cultural experience. Yet a medley such as Patsy Cline’s demonstrates just how much we, Black and White, North and South, rural and urban, really are one People.
The ending, coming after the recounting of her death in an airplane crash in 1963 (at the age of 30), is a backlit apotheosis of soaring gospel music. Her virtual beatification comes off less as religious trapping than the passing of a dearly missed friend. Not content to end such a down note, the play closes with a virtual resurrection, as Patsy brings down the house with a rousing final number. Always… Patsy Cline manages to avoid the more trite and played out tropes of the jukebox musical genre or the dead-celebrity biographic. It manages to succeed on its own merits, independent of its “backwoods” premise, to become just a beautiful story of about a friend long past.
Always… Patsy Cline opens tonight and runs through September 12.