Coming back to life

MSMT rolls out a wonderful Patsy Cline
By MEGAN GRUMBLING  |  June 16, 2010

theater_msmt_061810_main
FOREVER IN SONG Jenny Lee Stern as Patsy Cline.
 

The season at Maine State Music Theatre opens with the beautiful music of Always...Patsy Cline, Ted Swindley's feel-good celebration of the remarkable singer (Jenny Lee Stern) and her charms both on and off the stage. Chan Harris directs with satisfying musical direction by Mark Janas, an excellent six-piece band, and the delectable Jenny Lee Stern as the sweetheart icon of American country.

ALWAYS...PATSY CLINE | by Ted Swindley | Musical direction by Mark Janas; Directed by Chan Harris | Produced by Maine State Music Theatre, in Brunswick | through June 26 | 207.725.8769
As you might expect, Always is first and foremost a vehicle for a rich trove of Cline's hits, backed up by guitar, pedal steel, fiddle, piano, bass, and drums. Her songs range throughout the American songbook, including her breakout success "Walkin' After Midnight" and the gorgeous Willie Nelson tune "Crazy," which she immortalized.

But the play also seeks to give a sense of the woman behind the songs, of her warmth and utter lack of pretense. Rather than string the songs together along the lines of a standard artist bio, Swindley instead shows us Cline's appeal through the eyes of real-life Austin, Texas "everywoman" Louise Seger (Charis Leos), a big early fan — and even bigger personality — whose life is changed by her friendship with the singer. Through Louise's enthused recollections, we hear of her first smitten encounter with Cline's music (singing "Walkin' After Midnight" on Arthur Godfrey's prime-time TV variety hour), the immediate bond they form when Patsy plays a show in Austin, the letters Louise later receives from her, and finally the news of her too-early death (at 30, in a plane crash).

The setting, then, is both Louise's home and her memory, and Elisha Schaefer's set is a savvily expressionistic mingling of those worlds: The high wooden ceiling beams of the Grand Ole Opry and other performance venues shift seamlessly into the floral wallpaper and linoleum of Louise's living room and kitchen. Brian Hapcic's lighting moves us beautifully through the various moods and locales of Louise's experience, while Jeffrey Cady's video projection design allows us to experience the various media of the late-'50s and early-'60s music industry, including seeing Patsy as if on black-and-white TV and in a radio recording studio. These scenes, projected over Louise's patterned wallpaper, let Stern deftly conjure the singer's versatility in a number of very different contexts, while the floral print underneath the projections reminds us that we are always seeing her through the lens of Louise's memory.

Louise, in Leos's hands, is outrageous, full of hilarity, and welcoming. She also has a super voice, with which she occasionally accompanies Patsy (packing a particular wallop in "Bill Bailey"). In some stretches, Louise's comic antics might be distilled a little, and some musical moments actually seem a little encumbered by the context Swindley wrote for them (Stern's breathtaking rendition of "Crazy" doesn't need the literal connections to Cline's marital strife in order to send us swooning). But overall Leos holds the show together with great heart and folksy-racy sass, and is a sympathetic means of bridging Real Life and celebrity.

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