Pollard Theatre’s Always … Patsy Cline is great for fans, perplexing for everyone else

patsy cline

Always … Patsy Cline
Pollard Theatre Company
8 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 3 – Saturday, Sept. 5; 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 6
8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 10 – Sunday, Sept. 12
The Pollard Theatre | Guthrie

Pollard Theatre Company is opening its 29th season with the much-staged musical Always . . . Patsy Cline. Why the deciders at Pollard thought we needed another revival of this show right now isn’t clear. But they got one thing right: The company’s box office reports brisk ticket sales.

Created by Ted Swindley, Always … Patsy Cline is about the country/pop singer who flourished mid-20th century and one of her most devoted fans. The real-life fan, Louise Seger, stumbled upon Patsy Cline’s music by accident and became a friend of the ill-fated singer. The story has built-in tragedy: At the height of her fame, Cline died in a 1963 plane crash.

Brenda Williams has played Louise in multiple city-area productions of this two-hander, and she has set a high bar for everyone else. In the Pollard production, Jodi Nestander’s Louise is all surface. Her highs aren’t too high, and her lows aren’t too low.

How Louise is played makes a difference, because despite the title, this is really her show. Louise narrates the story, beginning with how she first heard Patsy on Arthur Godfrey’s television show in 1957. Later, Patsy sang at a honky-tonk near Louise’s home in Houston, where fan and idol finally meet and begin a friendship and correspondence. (The show is based on a true story; the title refers to how Patsy signed her letters to Louise.)

But Louise’s narration serves mainly as a link between songs. Patsy Cline fans (and the audience looked full of them at the reviewed performance) shouldn’t be disappointed in Kara Chapman’s portrayal of the singer. Chapman has a pleasant voice and looks as if she has studied Cline’s vocal style and idiosyncrasies and often performs them in italics. Even her gestures while singing look authentic.

In this production, the Louise and Patsy characters are more balanced than I’ve ever seen them. Both Nestander and Chapman lay on the accents pretty thick. Chapman turns “round” and “town” into two-syllable words.

Directed by Timothy Stewart, the production skims the surface rather than plumbs the depths of the show. One could argue the show has little depth to plumb. It’s mainly a vehicle for recreating Cline’s songs.
And what a compilation of mid-20th-century country/pop it is. The show’s more than two dozen numbers include “Honky Tonk Merry Go Round,” “Back in Baby’s Arms,” “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “San Antonio Rose,” the immortal “Crazy” and “Faded Love.” Want hymns? “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “How Great Thou Art” are in attendance. And the show ends with Cline’s rendition of “Bill Bailey” (audience sing-along encouraged).

Chapman has the advantage of performing these songs in Michael James’ tasteful, period costumes. James also designed the scenery, which consists of what look like one-by-four slats, enhanced by Michael Long’s lighting design. Clean, simple effective — just what you want in scenic design.

Todd S. Malicote leads a four-piece, onstage band in cowboy hats (keyboard, bass, drums, fiddle doubling guitar). The band also serves as Patsy’s backup singers.

Patsy Cline fans and compulsive theatergoers may find something new in this production. For the rest of us, theater season has just begun.