By Brent Schaus
“It’s my fourth time seeing this show. I watch it every chance I get. I’m such a huge Patsy Cline fan that I wouldn’t miss it.”
So said a 70-something audience member after a recent performance of Blue Ridge Repertory Theatre’s A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline.
I’m confident that the majority of the people at the sold-out performance felt the same way, and for the same reasons: this stage musical is a jukebox packed with Cline tunes (and the odd Perry Como). “There He Goes,” “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Back in Baby’s Arms,” among many others, flow from the jukebox. It ably invokes Patsy Cline, her music and the historical milieu from which she walked. Fans of Patsy Cline won’t care, then, that the plot is as thin as a banjo string.
Sara-Jeanne Hosie as Cline, renders a performance that is less an impersonation and more a gesture. She captures Patsy’s vocal stylings and stage mannerisms like some saintly truck-stop waitress. Hosie’s voice is warm, and her charisma is such that you want to glide with her across a dance floor. Those looking for a copy of Patsy Cline will be disappointed; instead, Hosie offers a deep curtsy to the singing legend. As a result, her performance feels authentic, not stilted. Hosie, as Cline, is a treat, like vanilla ice-cream on hot apple pie.
Wes Borg is perfectly cast as Little Big Man: a character who provides the through-line (flimsy as it is), leading us through highlights of Cline’s career. He acts as a Southern corn-pone radio DJ, and as emcee for Cline’s shows at the Grand Ole Opry and Carnegie Hall. A beloved local comedian, Borg’s timing is fantastic and his improv chops get a bit of play, too. His emotional warmth comes through on several occasions, helping him to avoid a Foghorn Leghorn stereotype.
In spite of the strength of Borg’s performance, some of the most cringe-worthy moments come from his character. Little Big Man’s jokes illustrate the sexism of the time (“My wife is so fat…” etc., etc.), but with little sense of irony. Not Borg’s fault, it is a dilemma of a show like this: nostalgia for the music of a time and place is understandable. But this was also a time and place where segregation was rampant, and gender roles were, at best, traditional.
The choreography, created by Treena Stubel, is wonderful, and provides the single best “wink” of the evening. During “Back in Baby’s Arms,” two female dancers are “played” like cellos by their male partners. When they stray, but return, each female dancer receives a few rhythmic spanks on the rump. They’ve learned that their place is “Back in Baby’s Arms,” an instrument to be played. More subtle, witty choreography like this would have helped provide a bit of critical distance. Cline’s musical brilliance should be celebrated, yes, but let’s not turn back the clock on gender roles without a bit of reflection.
The band, too, is first-rate, humbly giving faultless back-up on piano, drum kit, fiddle, acoustic bass and steel guitar. As if that weren’t enough, they also provided back-up harmonies. Pianist and musical director Nico Rhodes gives Hosie a vital link to her band, keeping the show’s music smooth. Assembled for this production, I’d pay to see this band play anytime, anywhere.
Dean Regan is the creator of A Walk With Patsy Cline — approved by Cline’s widower Charlie Dick — but the show’s librettist (you could say) is left uncredited. A big reason for the show’s popularity is the quality of the songs. Cline, like Elvis, wrote very few tunes herself. Donn Hecht, Harlan Howard, Hank Cochran and Don Gibson, among many others, penned these timeless songs, yet receive no mention or credit in Regan’s production. They should. M