Cleburne — Patsy Cline, whose name was really Virginia, sits at Louise’s dining table after a show. They compare the chips in their teeth. Such a bad habit, using one’s mouth to open hair pins! The rising country star and the Houston housewife also share an affection for horseshoe jewelry. Both have been divorced. Both are mothers. Virginia stays the night at her new friend’s house, sings Louise’s child to sleep.
Captivating entry, right? The premise of Ted Swindley’s 1988 musical Always…Patsy Cline was for me. As mystified as I am by the wide purr of Cline’s voice and the bones of the songs that made her famous, I had never seen a production of the oft-produced work, or the many accounts of the friendship behind it, which Seger herself brags about in this sweet LA Times interview.
The musical is on at Cleburne’s Plaza Theatre Company under the direction of Jay Lewis through July 27. It’s a joyride singalong through Cline’s catalog, but Always … Patsy Cline only skims the possibilities of the well-documented relationship between the two women.
Instead it celebrates — and manifests — the giddy distance of fantasy between the starstruck listener and the worshipped artist. Audiences know this dance, and it shows in the full, bright house at Plaza’s spiffed-up theater space downtown. Seger is played like the lone dancer on the floor/loud-talker in the venue bathroom line by an awkwardly effusive Shauna Lewis. (This is a reprise for her, and it’s easy to tell.) In hindsighted monologues, she gawks open-mouthed over beers with Patsy (Caitlan Leblo), who seems ambiguously relieved to court a (very) friendly patron.
The stage rotates slowly as Leblo sparkles at the mic for almost two dozen classics accompanied by a solid five-piece band, led by music director Leblo and pianist Cheri Dee Mega. As Patsy, Leblo’s measured drawl reaches toward the icon’s especially in “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “She’s Got You.” Those numbers captivate not because Leblo’s voice is a copy, but because it’s a devoted, performative homage. Louise’s blunted lines about loading Patsy into her pink and black sports car nicknamed “sexy dude” bring us back down. Toward the end, Louise slaps Patsy on the behind during one of these car scenes — was it an accident? — and the question of the extent of this crush surfaces for not the first time in the production.
Moments of dimension outside the script bring Plaza Theatre’s Always…Patsy Cline alive in particular, in the center of Cleburne’s historic downtown. Louise’s red kitchen, like a dollhouse in her memory and designed by Parker Barrus, and a nostalgic reverb effect through the mic to mark some final sung lines feel inventive.
We know what it is for Louise to love Patsy, a woman from similar means who sings through the radio exactly like she wishes she could. But what is it for Patsy to love Louise back? The letter referenced in the title is recited to prove the singer’s gratitude for Louise’s talks and hospitality, and moments of low-level mischief between the two friends in Louise’s memory hint at their shared audacity. Patsy and her honorary manager find ways into rooms where women who grow up poor aren’t supposed to be. Together, they find the side door, they demand the set times, and they surprise the radio DJ who thinks Louise couldn’t possibly be harboring Cline in her kitchen.
Always…Patsy Cline captures the fan letter of Louise’s retrospect. But there’s so much more to mine in what’s known of the friendship, another delight in the stores of a life that ended too soon when Cline died in a plane crash at age 30. We just get the sparkle of her bracelet — and more importantly, that voice and those songs — from the back of a packed house.