As we might say in Texas, the land of my birth, Always … Patsy Cline, as done by Stage West Community Playhouse in Spring Hill, is "pert near perfick."
It's a look into the all-too-brief life of late 1950s and '60s country-pop singer Patsy Cline, as told by her real-life friend, Louise Seger, a good old gal from Houston who took Patsy under her wing after they met at the legendary Esquire Ballroom north of the city and Louise took Patsy home for some bacon, eggs and late-night girl talk about their good kids and bad husbands.
It features 27 of Patsy's best-known and best-loved songs, including I Fall to Pieces, Walkin' After Midnight and Crazy, with some rock and gospel thrown in for good measure.
The heart of the show, of course, is those songs, and stage newcomer Kerri Lalane is simply astounding doing them. She's a professional rock singer. But her silky smooth voice has the depth and heartbreaking emotion that Patsy herself had, plus the distinctive nuances that set Patsy apart — the sometimes hesitant phrasing, the little tremolos, the soft "catch" and a little back-beat as her career progressed, the outlaw sound made famous by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, and the dawning of the Nashville Sound that is more pop than traditional country.
Lalane captures all that and more. As the show progresses, so does Lalane/Patsy's style evolve, going from pure country to the once-reviled, now treasured pop/country beloved by almost all ages and audiences. It's a blessing that the on-stage band has only five pieces, because it spares the audience the lush, overproduced sounds of Patsy's later recordings, leaving the pure sound of her voice and the words of songwriters like Nelson (Crazy), Bob Wills (San Antonio Rose), Hank Cochran (She's Got You), Bill Monroe (Blue Moon of Kentucky) and even Cole Porter (True Love).
The soul of the show, though, is the warm relationship between Virginia-born Patsy and Mississippi-born, Texas transplant Louise (played with gusto by the brilliant Emily Nettnin, herself a professional performer and theater instructor). Nettnin's Louise has the swagger and inflection of the mix of Mississippi and Texas you would expect (never mind that the real Louise was rather refined and always objected to the way she was portrayed in the show). Whatever, it makes for good theater, and that's what writer Ted Swindley was aiming for and what he got.
Nettnin's physical humor and easygoing rapport with the audience enhances the somewhat sketchy story and underscores Patsy's development from shy singer to a confident, mature superstar in a relatively short period of time.
Director Ellen Hutt gets the best from her two leads, and music director Carol Ballard captures the laid-back tempo of Patsy's ballads, despite the fact that fiddle player Andrew Sterlacci was called away on business and had a rather tentative substitute at the last minute. Eileen Bernard and Kathy Capelle's costumes perfectly re-create the many styles Patsy favored, from the signature red satin, white fringed cowgirl outfit to the sparkling sequin- and crystal-covered gowns she so loved.
The one letdown was an overly long music bridge at the conclusion of the show that seems to take the hats and whistles out of the revved-up audience before the stars reappear for curtain calls and a couple of encores. That may be in the script. But it took the air out of a poignant ending that would have been more satisfying if it were followed by quicker, upbeat bows, patter and encores.
That said, Always … Patsy Cline is a warm, satisfying look at little-known part of the singer's offstage life, done to near perfection by the performers at Stage West.