Like her contemporary, the movie star James Dean, Patsy Cline arrived in pop-culture heaven prematurely, the result of a tragedy. She died in a plane crash in 1963 at the age of 30, leaving behind two small children and the work that resulted from twelve recording sessions, not to mention a growing number of fans in and outside country and western music. All were addicted to the swoop and embrace of her voice, most wondering what she might have accomplished if she hadn't died so young. One of the first women pop performers to have a solo career, Cline was a sophisticated trailblazer. Her influence can still be seen and heard in the music of country-western thoroughbreds Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, and Tammy Wynette, as well as relative newcomer LeAnn Rimes, poseur Linda Ronstadt, and hero worshiper k.d. lang.
The story of Cline's life as a pop icon has been mined several times, most notably in Sweet Dreams, the 1985 film starring Jessica Lange that documented the singer's tumultuous relationship with husband Charlie Dick. (For my money a more satisfying cinematic portrait is the one by the elegant Beverly D'Angelo in Coal Miner's Daughter, a virtual walk-on that conveys Cline's mythic stature.) She's also the subject of two less-than-compelling theater pieces: Always Patsy Cline, which records her friendship with a fan-turned-friend through their correspondence, and A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, now at Palm Beach's Cuillo Centre, which peppers the now-familiar headlines of her life with her music and multiple costume changes. (The title comes from the gospel standard "A Closer Walk with Thee," which Cline recorded.)
Creator and Canadian entertainer Dean Regan weaves Cline favorites "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Sweet Dreams," "Won't You Come Home Bill Bailey" and others into a portrait that doesn't say anything new or particularly deep about the singer. Leslie Jo Bissett, who stars in A Closer Walk, has the difficult job of bringing Cline to life in small sketches that introduce each song. Cline's feelings about being a working mother and a groundbreaking recording artist are not well-known. She didn't give a wealth of in-depth interviews, and as a result A Closer Walk, like Always, is less a biography than an excuse for a singer to get into Patsy's sequined boots and belt out her tunes.
Performers who play the star seldom bring their own vocal interpretations to the role, and Bissett is no exception. (Lange lip-synched to Cline's recordings in Sweet Dreams.) The presumption seems to be that audiences want the illusion of believing they are listening to the real thing, even though recordings of some 104 tracks and various live performances are readily available. With no new interpretation of her life or her music forthcoming, Cline's stage biographies resemble drag shows, in which her baroque vocal mannerisms are reproduced sob for sob. The fact that Cline, one of pop music's great interpreters, has become the subject of mere mimicry is a shame. Not to mention unnecessary, because her trademark he-dumped-me songs -- from "Crazy" to "Walkin' After Midnight" and "I Fall to Pieces" -- are all versatile enough to withstand multiple voices and different castings. Singer k.d. lang, for example, proves that you can imitate Cline's singing without losing yourself in the process.
A Closer Walk uses a radio show as a framing device. Real-life radio host Jack Cole plays a DJ in Patsy's hometown of Winchester, Virginia, who is putting on an all-day tribute to Cline, coincidentally (or conveniently) on the same day in 1963 that the singer dies in the crash. The DJ, who refers to himself as the Virginia Ham, leads the audience through the succession of Cline's career highlights, beginning on the day in the '40s when the teenage Virginia Hensley walked into WINC and talked the DJ into letting her sing the upbeat "Come On In" on the air. He also delivers ominous updates on the local weather, which cast a tragic mood over even the lighter moments of the show for anyone who remembers that Cline's plane went down in a thunderstorm.
The play follows Cline's appearances at roadhouses in rural Virginia, her audition at the Grand Ole Opry in 1948, her appearance on Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts, her first recording contract, her adoption of a stage name (a hybrid of her middle name, Patterson, and the last name of her first husband), her breakthrough as the first woman to have a song on both the pop and country charts, and so on. Also onstage is a four-piece band that not only accompanies Patsy but, in the guise of the WINC studio quartet, plays period jingles for WINC's advertisers. ("You'll wonder where the yellow went/When you brush your teeth with Pepsodent.") Director Ron Palillo, a former actor (he played Arnold Horshack on TV's Welcome Back, Kotter), allows the musicians, directed by pianist Mace Graham, as much attention as the headline performers, a honor they more than deserve.
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When not inside the DJ booth, Cole doubles as various performers who might have warmed up audiences for Cline: an Opry clown, a Las Vegas comedian, and a hillbilly comic who traveled with Cline to Carnegie Hall. Despite Cole's considerable performing talents, these sequences, probably inserted to give Bissett time for costume changes, are deadly. When, as the Grand Ole Opry comedian, Cole had the spotlight turned on yours truly, the better to set up a joke, I was scribbling down the words bad vaudeville routine. At any rate Bissett spent her generous downtime changing from one bad wig to another, a complete reversal of the grueling conditions Cline faced. She often did several long shows a day, seven days a week, always with great hair.
Bissett is a personable performer with a big, warm, Cline-like voice, even if she's perkier by far than the real Cline. She obviously adores her subject, and that affection comes through, despite the fact that she has to perform on a low-budget set that shoehorns the DJ booth and the Carnegie Hall/Grand Ole Opry set against the bandstand on the Cuillo Centre's small stage. As befitting a Patsy Cline wardrobe, the costumes in this show have lives of their own, though perhaps not the well-appointed lives they would have had if Cline's seamstress mother were still around to sew them.
Cline fans know that Patsy eventually traded in the fringed cowgirl outfits her mother created for chic frocks and pumps and eveningwear around the same time her producer, Owen Bradley, created the famous and formal orchestral arrangements for her songs. Enough with the behind-the-scenes look in the recording studio, however. I'd like to see a re-creation of the conversation that must have taken place the day Cline decided to change her image. "Forget the cactus appliqués, Mom. I need to look like I belong at Carnegie Hall. Dress me like Cocktail Lounge Barbie and save the Dale Evans getup for someone else." Sweet dreams, indeed.