REVIEW WRITTEN BY DANTE J. J. BEVILACQUA
For Digital First Media
“Always….Patsy Cline,” at the Bristol Riverside Theatre is a crowd-pleasing musical full of down-home country humor and a big heart. Based on a true story, the show features nearly 30 classic songs from the Patsy Cline songbook.
This gentle, kindhearted story, is filled with both mirthful and melancholy songs from the late 50’s and early 60’s. It’s the musical version of a big, warm hug.
Cline was more than one of the first female country stars, she was an inspiration to the future females to grace The Grand Ole Opry stage in Nashville.
From 1957 to 1963, Patsy recorded many hit tunes ranging from honky-tonk to haunting ballads and deeply emotional songs. Her rich tone, emotionally expressive, and bold contralto voice is gloriously recreated on the Bristol stage by the marvelously talented Jessica Wagner who sings, acts and looks just like the Country star we remember.
Whether or not you are a Patsy Cline fan, this is an unconventional night at the theater that is part concert, part nostalgia and pure joy.
With a musical career that spanned just eight years, Patsy Cline’s music has continued to endure since her tragic death in a plane crash in 1963.
Back in the 50’s nearly all the Opry stars were men. But the glamorous brunette with the rich, aching voice smashed barriers, paving the way for artists from Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton to Faith Hill and Carrie Underwood.
Many recall the Hollywood biopic, “Sweet Dreams” (1985) and a memorable portrayal of her in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980).
Patsy is remembered as sassy and unlucky in romance; long-suffering, despairing and vulnerable but yet, enduring. She was an earthy, honky-tonk angel who goes “walking after midnight,” is “crazy for loving” and occasionally, “falls to pieces.” She sometimes wails but never sobs, and in many ways she is a lot like us.
She become the first female solo artist to headline her own show, the first to be billed above her fellow male performers, the first female country singer to perform at Carnegie Hall and the first female singer to be inducted (posthumously) into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
This informative musical depicts the real-life story of Patsy Cline’s chance meeting in 1961 with one of her biggest fans, Louise Seger. Seger had arrived early for Clines’s performance at Houston’s Esquire Ballroom, with her boyfriend in tow.
The ladies met before the show, shared personal stories and bonded as if they’d always known each other. Patsy was persuaded to spend a homey, comfortable night at Louise’s house instead of at a cheap motel; the next morning, on their way to the airport, Louise talked Patsy into doing a local radio interview.
Their friendship continued over the next two years, until the day when Louise heard the tragic news about her friend’s death on the radio.
From her haunting physical resemblance to the singer, to the way Jessica Wagner caresses every lyric and melody, this marvelous performer grabs hold of her audience right from the start.
Wagner conveys the plaintive warble and moving tremolo that Patsy brought to such signature pieces as Cole Porter’s simple and ardent “True Love,” the ebullient “Back in Baby’s Arms,” the romping “You Belong to Me,” and such religious favorites as “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “How Great Thou Art.”
What Wagner brings to this show musically, Jo Twiss as Louise Seger, supplies in humor and sincere admiration for her singing idol. The chemistry between these two actresses is real and visible and it’s the honesty and empathy Twiss brings to her portrayal that makes this devoted, caring friend special.
With Susan Atkinson’s smart staging, Adam Koch’s striking set design and Ryan Touhey’s great five-piece band of urban cowboys in black cowboy hats, complete with steel guitar, this show is very entertaining. Cory Pattak’s precise lighting nicely captures the varied moods of the musical moments.
Thanks to the charismatic performances of these two inspired ladies, the audience responds enthusiastically to the songs and the story, and it is easy to see why this show would be a treat for any who enjoys great music, straight from the heart.
IF YOU GO
What: “Always…Patsy Cline”
Where: Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe St. in Bristol.
When: Now through Feb. 22.
Info.: Call (215) 785-0100 or check brtstage.org