SALT LAKE CITY — I’m not much of a country music fan, but even I know the name “Patsy Cline.” Cline’s name is synonymous with a smooth silky voice that excelled at the country blues or a swingin’ country dance song. Before her tragic death in a plane crash at age 30, Cline recorded multiple top 10 hits and had sung at the Grand Ole Opry and several times on national TV.
But Cline had a human touch that is portrayed in the show Always… Patsy Cline. Always is the story of Cline’s friendship with fan Louise Seger. Louise is a Houston divorcé who feels like Cline’s music speaks to her through the lyrics and the tone of the music itself. After meeting before a concert and talking for hours afterwards, Cline and Seger continue their friendship through letters until Cline’s death about two years later. In essence, Always… Patsy Cline is a tribute to Cline’s unique talents and the impact she had on her fans—who are embodied in Louise.
As with any jukebox musical, the centerpiece of Always… Patsy Cline is the music. With the live band on stage and the way that Erica Hansen throws herself into the music of Patsy Cline, it’s hard to deny that these time-honored tunes hold up well in a 21st century stage performance. The onstage band (led by pianist and music director Kevin Mathie) is excellent in every way, and I didn’t hear a mistake in the entire two-hour show. I was especially impressed by Linda Montgomery’s performance on the fiddle, which was showcased in a few instrumental sections of the score. Hansen’s voice has that lovely old-fashioned country twang that whisks you back to yesteryear’s style of country music.
Camille Van Wagoner plays Louise, the only other character in the show. Van Wagoner’s Louise is just neurotic enough to make her adorable, but not so much that she would creep out a celebrity like Cline. Van Wagoner effectively played a woman whose life has been touched and improved by Cline’s music, which seems to have helped her get through the trials she’s encountered in her less-than-ideal past. I also found Van Wagoner’s Louise endearing because she had a perfect Texas twang and was utterly inhibited as she danced to Cline’s music.
Most of Always consists of just Patsy Cline songs strung together by some narration from Louise (during which Hansen usually changed costumes). Despite the sameness of most of the show, director Richard Scott found ways to change up the way some of the songs were presented. The intimate “If I Could See the World” was effectively given a lullaby feel through costuming, blocking, and the sweet tone of Hansen’s voice. The concert numbers (such as “Honky Tonk Merry Go Round,” and “Come On In”) were differentiated from one another by costuming, lighting changes, or different actions from Louise. I feel like Scott’s direction kept the show from feeling like a series of Patsy Cline covers and moved the story along nicely.
Technically, there is much to commend about this show. When I saw an onstage band, I was nervous about being able to hear the singing over the instruments, but my fears were never realized because the volume levels of the different microphones were perfect during the entire night. Visually, I enjoyed the black and white projections of Hansen on the screens, which effectively gave the feeling that I was watching some of her songs on a 1950’s black and white television—which is likely how many of Cline’s fans first encountered her performances.
Up until now, I have said little about Hansen’s acting. Some of that is because she doesn’t do much acting at all. Most of her time is spent on stage singing—which she does extremely well. I enjoyed how Hansen made the performance feel more like a concert (such as when she bantered with audience members or winked at the crowd) and less like a musical theatre performance with a fourth wall. But I don’t feel qualified to judge whether Hansen becomes Patsy Cline because I had never seen video of Cline perform and her heyday was two decades before I was born. Also, as far as character development goes, I don’t feel like I knew any more about Patsy Cline and what kind of woman she was at the end of the show than I did at the beginning. Almost all of the character development is spent on Louise. As far as I’m concerned, the Patsy Cline that you know when you come into the Grand Theater is the same one you’ll know when you leave. I found this lack of attention on Cline disappointing.
If you’re a Patsy Cline fan, you’ll unquestionably enjoy the evening. The songs from the Cline catalog often drew applause with just a few introductory chords and Louise’s story is charming. If you’re not a Cline fan (or a country music fan in general), this may not be the show for you. But the cast and creative team accomplished what they set out to do: pay tribute to Patsy Cline and give her fans a lovely two-hour concert. For this, I salute them.