Reviewed by Nancy Oliveri
There’s something delightful about jukebox musicals, even small ones. I’m not 100% sure if Always … Patsy Cline strictly qualifies, but it does have a real jukebox,and a live honky-tonk band. And — hell, yeah — that’s reason enough to go see it, but there’s more.
Country singer Patsy Cline’s earthy, satiny, often tear-filled contralto drew many fans to her music in the late 1950s and early ’60s — and also in the many decades since her tragic death in a 1963 plane crash at the tender age of 30.
Poignantly directed by George Kurbaba, and produced by SRO Productions III at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City, Always … also has this: a singer whose authentic vocal interpretation of the title character is as close to Cline’s as humanly possible.
Alexandra Macko Mendoza, a Binghamton native, has been singing locally and abroad for a long time, but this role is one she may have been born to play. She has performed in many stage shows and as a part of Al Hamme’s Swing Street Station, both here and in New York, but in Always… Patsy Cline, she owns the role.
Mendoza credits Scott Fisher, who is co-music director with Andrew Simek, for helping her find that “Patsy sound.” Speaking of which, Mendoza’s clear, beautiful tone adds an even richer dimension of maturity to a voice that, historically, never had that chance. What a gift those of us who love Patsy’s voice are given with this show and Mendoza’s spot-on interpretation.
She sings no fewer than two dozen songs, both hits and lesser-known numbers, in the course of two acts and never skips a beat or loses her voice, an amazing accomplishment. Each is filled with the requisite pathos or joy, longing or humor.
The plot of Always…, written by Ted Swindley, is narrow, but it doesn’t need to be any more nuanced than it is to be compelling. It focuses on Cline’s real-life friendship with one very special fan, a Texas divorcee raising two kids on her own.
Louise Seger, who met Patsy just once as the singer’s career was blossoming, is adorably played by Lynette Daniels. Louise narrates the sequence of events that take Patsy from an up and comer at the Grand Ole Opry and on the Arthur Godfrey TV show to her brief, grueling life on the road.
When Louise finds out that Patsy is coming to Houston for a good old Texas honky-tonk, she has to get there, come hell or high water. But instead of worshipping from afar, she finds the courage, and a lucky break, to approach Cline. Anyone who has ever met a favorite performer will relate to Daniels’ absolute gush of excitement when she meets hers.
In a happy turn of events, Louise’s kindness to the down-to-earth Cline gives the two women a chance to get to know each other in Louise’s kitchen, where they find they have a lot in common. Louise may have played a huge part in Patsy’s success through her acquaintance with a local radio host, whom we never see, but he’s a key character, too.
Daniels’ performance called to mind, for me anyway, Jessica Chastain’s fragile but tough Celia Foote from The Help.
Although they never met again, Patsy kept a promise and wrote to Louise often, inspiring the title.
Backing up the true story is Patsy’s Bodacious Bobcat Band, led by Drew Bob (Andrew Simek on piano), Paul Bob (Paul St. Clair on steel pedal guitar), Craig Bob (Craig Hawkins on fiddle), Mike Bob (Mike Whitney on guitar), Steve Bob (Steve Shafer on bass), and Robin “Boob” Bob (Robin Warner on drums). The Bodacious Bobcats remain on stage throughout, accompanying Patsy on everything from “Walking After Midnight” to “Sweet Dreams” and “Crazy.” I love that these musicians got to keep their own first names as members of the Bobcats.
Other contributors include Joe Roma (technical director); Pam Ondrusek (producer); Gregory Bain (lighting); Gene Czebiniak (set, program and poster design); Sean Sherwood (sound engineer); Gabriel Kainibe and John Vrabel (set construction); Jan McMahon (costumes); Glenda Lopez Colon (props); Danette Matteo (hair design); Annie Trebilcock (makeup and dresser); Mari Lewis, Jill Green and Tim Wagstaff (publicity); Randy Cummings (photographer), and Kaylea Lockwood (stage crew).
If you go, try to sit closer to the center of the house, as the set has some features that prohibit seeing the whole band. I could hear Craig Hawkins’ fine fiddle, for instance, but from where I sat at house right I couldn’t see him at all.
IF YOU GO: Always … Patsy Cline opened this past weekend (April 13-15) and continues at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (April 20 and 21) and 2 p.m. Sunday (April 22) at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage, 46-48 Willow St., Johnson City. For tickets, call 722-2811 or visit sroproductionsonline.com.