By John Dwyer
Bucks County Playhouse is on a roll. Back to back, they have given us a “Mamma Mia!,” which was better than what I saw on Broadway, and now, “Always…Patsy Cline,” with the glorious voice of Carter Calvert as Patsy and the most remarkable performance by Sally Struthers as Louise Seger, her biggest fan.
The trajectory of most musical autobiographies would be to have the singer as the protagonist and to follow their life from beginning to end. But what makes this one stand out is that the framing of the show is from the perspective of the fan, Louise, who stands in for all of us who are affected by those artists who sing the songbooks of our lives. Sally Struthers as Louise is us. She is the waitress or electrician (which Louise was) or the truck driver or the average middle-class man or woman who loves music and is taken away to a special place on its wings when they hear that special song.
The show premiered in 1988 in Houston at Stages Repertory Theater, where Ted Swindley was artistic director. He was looking for an additional show for his summer season. A local actress there wanted to sing the songs of Patsy Cline, and that had an appeal to Swindley. He looked for a Houston connection, wondering if Cline had ever visited his hometown. He found she had. He decided to forgo a revue, and instead do a full musical that took more shape after discovering an interview with Houston fan Louise Seger in the autobiography “Patsy Cline” by Ellis Nassour.
Quite a bit of dialogue is taken from interviews and letters. The story begins with Louise Seger calling into radio station KIKK in Houston daily to request Patsy Cline songs. Patsy’s voice and soul speaks so much to Louise that she could never get enough of it since hearing it on the radio during “The Arthur Godfrey Show.” ). In 1961. when she learns that Patsy is going to do a show at the Esquire Ballroom in Houston, she gets there an hour and a half early with her friends. They are the only ones there until someone walks in, who turns out to be Patsy. With great trepidation, Louise approaches her idol, and what happens next is the story of the play. Needless to say, they become friends. Their friendship remained until Patsy’s accident.
There are 27 Patsy Cline songs in the show that are sung to perfection by the wonderful Broadway actress and jazz vocalist Carter Calvert. She can hold onto a note longer than one would think humanly possible. The effect is nothing less than miraculous and so rousing and stirring that it initiates an audience response that is almost Pavlovian. Cline, like her contemporaries Connie Francis and Brenda Lee, had that big head sound that was so open that it wrapped around you and wouldn’t let you go. That is exactly what Calvert has in spades. The applause for “You Belong to Me” seemed endless, and for the beautifully modulated rendition she gave, it was well deserved.
And then there is the other half of this two-woman musical play, the remarkable Sally Struthers. The story is told for the most part by her character Louise, and were her character not believable enough and not a mesmerizing storyteller, the show would fall apart, and a mere revue would have sufficed. Struthers shows so much acting skill that she makes you see what she sees, and feel what she feels. Her performance is beyond an ordinary acting job. If you remember any of the one-woman shows like Lily Tomlin, Sara Jones or Whoopi Goldberg back in the day, Struthers reminds you of those actresses. As she washes imaginary dishes or works at her office, gets into her car and drives away, nothing is there, but we all definitely see what she sees. Beyond that, we more importantly feel what she feels. She 100 percent owns this role.
The show has had a long life, and having read the reviews, one can only say that Struthers brings as much to the material as it brings to her, and she mines gold. This production is better than what was seen in New York, for any to whom that matters. I doubt, there is or will be a better version of this show than that seen on the Bucks County Playhouse stage.
So, if you love Patsy Cline, and you love to see an actress do some great acting, this is the show to plunk down your dollar for and grab a seat. Some of the songs that you will be privileged to hear are “Back in Baby’s Arms,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “ Stupid Cupid,” “Three Cigarettes,” “True Love” and “Crazy.”
Kudos to director to David Galligan and musical director John Daniels and the six-piece orchestra. The show runs through Sept. 7.