Irving — A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline couldn’t possibly succeed if Julie Johnson’s pipes and Patsy vibe were one iota off target. And they’re not. With a twinkle in her eye, Johnson uses a rich, satisfying alto and the right balance of drama and restraint to capture Patsy just as we remember her in our collective imagination.
The show, a two-hour Patsy fest, was created in Vancouver by Dean Regan, with the blessings of the Patsy Cline Estate. Charlie Dick, who was married to Cline at the time of her death (and who died himself this past November) was production advisor. The Lyric Stage production at the Irving Arts Center, which follows a run at Granbury Opera House, is directed by Johnson, with cabaret partner Steve Barcus as musical director and hardest working guy on the stage.
Playing DJ Little Big Man at WINC in Patsy’s hometown of Winchester, Virginia, Barcus narrates the story of Cline’s life between songs—and steps out from his DJ booth to help dramatize them. When he’s not Little Big Man, Barcus also is producer Owen Bradley, arguing with Patsy over a song she’s certain will flop. (The audience indulges a knowing chuckle at the intro to “Walkin’ After Midnight,” her first country-pop crossover hit.) He’s a goofy Grand Ol’ Opry comedian and a smarmy Las Vegas lounge lizard. And he plays piano in the able band backing Johnson, which also includes D. Garrett Roper on drums; Jerry Matheny on guitar; Kevin Bailey on guitar and banjo; and Kerry Huckaba on bass.
Patsy Cline was just 30 years old when she died in an airplane crash in 1963, but she left behind a canon of iconic hits, and Closer Walk weaves a loose story as an excuse to sit back and revisit them. Once past the somewhat uncomfortable job of playing a 15-year-old, Johnson inhabits her role with ease. We get only snippets of Patsy when she’s not singing—a line here and there—but she gives them a pleasing touch of Patsy sass. We’re here for the songs anyway, and Johnson’s faithful renditions—no small feat when you’re talking Patsy Cline—are utterly satisfying. At the same time, we see Patsy grow as a performer, from fringe-wearing cowgirl to gowns and gravitas; even her voice seems to increase in confidence over the course of the show.
Here are all of Patsy’s greatest hits and then some: “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Sweet Dreams,”” Crazy,” “Back in Baby’s Arms,” and “I Fall to Pieces,” of course. But also “Faded Love,” “Always,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” and “Bill Bailey.” With the first notes of each beloved song, the audience sighs with satisfaction.
Dying so young, Patsy didn’t have a lot of life story for telling, so the show between songs is padded with Barcus bits that sometimes go on a little long. One nice touch: during radio segments, Barcus and the band perform old commercial jingles, tickling the crowd, which is mostly old enough to remember them. (“Winston tastes good like a cigarette should,” “New Ajax laundry detergent is stronger than dirt.”)
When Little Big Man announces news of Patsy’s untimely death, quiet sniffles can be heard throughout the audience. It’s not that we don’t know the end of the story, but it’s such a pity to have lost a performer so powerful. Just hearing her songs is not enough—we’ll pay to see her recreated before our eyes.
» Read our interview with Johnson when she performed the show in Granbury