July 3, 2008
Always a terrific homage
to a great artist
by Greg Boyle
The musical play Always . . . Patsy Cline is a sure-fire audience pleaser. It is a glimpse into the life of one of the most highly regarded country music stars who ever trod the boards of The Grand Ol’ Opry. The production, which opened June 27 at the American Heartland Theatre in Crown Center, has the best elements of a successful show — terrific singing, memorable songs that have you leaving the theatre humming, plus a sensational comedic performance by the supporting cast of one.
As expected, with 25 songs in a show, there’s not much of a plot. We get to witness a recounting of a true-life meeting of Patsy Cline with one of her ardent fans. Patsy’s professional life is then revealed in narration by the fan. While that format might sound dull, it is as much fun as you could hope to have at a theatre.
The show does not start strong. “Honky Tonk Merry Go Round,” “Back in Baby’s Arms” and “Anytime” dragged on opening night. “Walkin’ After Midnight” started to pick up the pace, and with “Come On In,” Becky Barta as Patsy Cline was all the way there.
Barta’s acting was surprisingly stiff. She didn’t inhabit the character in a physical sense although her costumes and hair was absolutely a perfect match to photos of Patsy Cline. To the audience, that didn’t matter one stitch. They came to hear Barta sing, and that she did. The husky voice and little vocal hiccups that Patsy used to such effect were all in evidence in Barta’s fine performance.
The acting, and the underlying energy of the show, was provided superbly by Cathy Barnett. This is an actress we have seen a lot of locally this past year. She’s done a couple of supporting roles at the New Dinner Theatre in Overland Park. However, Always allows her to go full out, and Barnett doesn’t hold back. In fact, the show doesn’t seem to really get started until she takes the stage. After Barnett appears the first time, Barta has to fight to match Barnett’s stage presence. Rather than upstage the star, it raises the performance level to the heights that left the audience wanting more.
This show has a number of interesting local connections. To start with, Barta, is a hometown girl, who first performed Always . . . Patsy Cline right here in Kansas City. She has since gone on to portray Cline in 15 different productions across the country. More significantly, the real Patsy Cline’s last performance before her untimely death at age 30, was at Memorial Hall in Kansas City, KS.
Cline’s meteoric career was cut short by a plane crash on her way home to Nashville from KCK, only six years after her first recording in 1957. However, In that short time, she set the standard for all female country music singers of her time and to come. To this day, every member of that category a music fan could name — June Carter Cash, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Trisha Yearwood, Tammy Wynette, ad infinitum, have recognized Patsy Cline as the artist and person whom they would most like to emulate.
The reasons for Patsy Cline’s lofty regard in the industry have to do with not only her artistry, which is considered unmatched, but every aspect of her life. Philanthropist, women’s rights pioneer, mother, and down-to-earth gal who would sit around drinking Schlitz and telling bawdy jokes; Cline was a unique personality. She had such a high regard for her public that she would stay around for hours after concerts, signing autographs. But in her own words, “She wasn’t anybody’s patsy.” In an era of unscrupulous concert promoters, she made sure she and the band got paid before going on stage.
Cline’s husky voice and aching delivery filled out the meaning of a song and changed it to make it her own. Cline’s style made her the first female artist from Nashville to have a recording which was not only a hit among country western music fans, but “crossed over” to the pop charts to find a much wider audience. “I Fall to Pieces” proved that a female could have as great a draw as a man in the industry.
The opening night performance at AHT started out a little slowly, with Barta on stage with the band, The Bodacious Bobs, a fine bunch of back-up men. The band knew their assignment, to stay out of the way and let Barta’s Patsy Cline be what the audience remembered. All the same, it was a tight combo that provided exactly what was needed. The only time the vocals were overwhelmed was when Barta reached down into the lower registers on ballads. On those occasions, which didn’t happen often, it was hard to hear the lyrics.
In their cowboy regalia, the band looked like musicians always looked before rock and roll made every player into a celebrity persona. They were ordinary-looking men who could easily be mistaken for truck drivers or plumbers, except for the drummer, who sported a ponytail. (No disrespect to Barta’s main squeeze who plays bass.)
Greg Boyle can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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