Review: Stages St. Louis' Reboot of 'Always… Patsy Cline' Isn't Crazy
After the runaway success of last year’s production of “Always… Patsy Cline,” at Stages St. Louis, the company has brought the crowd-pleasing musical back for a return engagement at the newly renovated Westport Playhouse—now a smaller, more intimate space. To call the production a crowd-pleaser doesn’t do it justice. The ghostly doppelganger performance by Jacqueline Petroccia as Patsy Cline is mesmerizing, while the four-on-the-floor turn by Zoe Vonder Haar as number one fan Louise Seger keeps the audience revved up and rapturously enthralled.
The musical review, written by Ted Swindley (who was in the audience opening night), is wrapped around the unlikely friendship between Seger and Cline established during Cline’s appearance at a Houston Club. The two would continue to exchange letters for the remainder of Cline’s life until her tragic death in an airplane crash in 1963, when she was just 30 years old.
Petroccia’s performance is spot-on. The rich, effusive, dulcet voice of Cline was in full force as Petroccia gracefully slid through many of Cline’s greatest hits; “I Fall to Pieces,” “Sweet Dreams,” and “Crazy,” to name just three. Fans of Patsy who, let’s say, own some of her music and listen to it from time to time—but always with a sense of distance and detachment—might actually feel a stronger connection to the artist they admired for talent but never really understood emotionally. By the third song (or during), “Walkin’ After Midnight,” those people might come to a very surprising realization; Patsy Cline—her voice and a heretofore unseen emotional power—was sexy too.
Acknowledging that the character of Seger drives the play, one still feels compelled to say that Zoe Vonder Haar drives this play. Her over-the-top performance, if attempted by a lesser actress, would look like exactly that, over-the-top. But Vonder Haar owns the largeness of the role, makes it believable and we love her for it. Her improvisation with the audience is a delight, and you have to admire her when she is occasionally called on to stand next to a singing Patsy and move and groove to the song. It’s weird and funny and kind of joyous.
Director Michael Hamilton does a fine job in keeping the action moving when it needs to, as well as letting it slow down so we can swim in the deep pool of Patsy’s music at times. James Wolk’s set isn’t the prettiest, but it’s clever, like the oven that morphs into a jukebox. Primarily functioning as Seger’s home, the set features scrims for walls which are opaque when lit from the front (revealing the garish befuddling wallpaper design), but become translucent when lit from behind (by lighting designer Matthew McCarthy) to reveal Patsy singing on stage and the exceptionally tight band under the entertaining direction of Lisa Campbell Albert, who conducted while playing the piano.
Lou Bird’s costumes were mostly marvelous, from Patsy’s cowgirl outfits to the cocktail dresses she wore later in her career, and then on to the gold lamé pants that Cline finally adopted, which was met with some controversy at the time. That particular outfit here should be rethought. A fine job too by Production Stage Manager Heidi Echtenkamp, because nobody ever mentions the production stage manager, but this show makes one feel generous.
In her lifetime, Cline was known for her extraordinary generosity, as depicted here by her lifelong friendship with a simple housewife she met during a Houston club performance. This production is also generous, with its luscious music, its wonderful performances and its minimizing of the real tragic end of Patsy’s story, to focus instead on the positive, leaving the audience not with a tear, but with a smile, and maybe a new lifetime friendship with Patsy Cline. Always.
“Always… Patsy Cline” continues at the Westport Playhouse through June 22. For more information, visit the Stages St. Louis website.
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