Onstage: Pulling out the stops

Patsy Cline's music comes to life at the Cincinnati Playhouse

Molly Andrews, starring in Always ... Patsy Cline at the Playhouse in the Park, is an amazing singer. Her voice is rich as cream and smooth as butter. In Appalachian Strings, in which she appeared last year, her singing was thinner, appropriate to the character she was playing, but for her role as Patsy Cline, she pulls out all the stops and gives the audience an uncanny portrayal of the full-throated, heart-catching and ultimately tragic singer.

There's not much to hang the story on: Patsy Cline met fan Louise Seagal (Adale O'Brien) at a honky-tonk in Houston in 1961 and carried on a correspondence with her until Patsy was killed in a plane crash in 1963. Louise is one of those feisty, older women who always seems to have something up her sleeve, and it is she who narrates the highlights of Cline's life. Patsy, she tells us, liked to cook, considered herself a down-to-earth country girl, loved her children and felt guilty leaving them alone when she was on the road. She hints at Patsy's abusive husband, Charlie Dick, and ultimately it is Louise who tells us with a rueful sigh of the sad, fatal plane crash. Andrews weaves her costume changes and songs around Louise's scant dialogue. The five-piece Country band, conducted by Gayle King, stays behind the Decca imprint on the stage set, pretty much out of sight.

Patsy Cline was born in Winchester, Va., on Sept. 8, 1932. A strong, vibrant singer, she burst onto the music scene in Nashville at exactly the right time. The fledgling Country music industry was looking for a new direction, and the power- brokers in Nashville were searching for honky-tonk crooners to fill the jukeboxes in rural beer joints and taverns. The public was tired of Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells, and the likes of Faron Young, Stonewall Jackson, Lefty Frizzell and Webb Pierce were being groomed for stardom. Ironically, of all these memorable singers, only Patsy's name retains its niche in American culture. (For years, whenever my audiences got restless, I'd throw in a Patsy Cline song, and they'd perk up like wilted houseplants after a drink of water.)

Cline had four critically acclaimed hit records. For the techno-freaks among you, those songs were recorded on a three-track analog board (as opposed to today's studios, which feature 48-track consoles with digital columns that flash and blink like space ships.) "Walkin' After Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces," "Crazy" (penned by a young, fresh-faced Willie Nelson) and "Sweet Dreams" by Don Gibson. The latter was one of the first recordings to feature the new "Nashville Sound," a wall of strings and background singers compressed on one track. It made Patsy a major crossover artist and, according to many country folks, scared the hens so bad they quit laying eggs.

Molly Andrews sails through all 22 songs on the program. (Some of the lesser songs made me cringe, frankly. They were songs for teen-agers.) "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," featured some excellent guitar work by Ted Karas. Hank Williams would have been proud of "Your Cheating Heart," except for one minor flaw. In Country music, broken-hearted lovers walk the "floor," not the "floors."

I could have done without "Blue Moon of Kentucky," but if the producers of the play insist on using it — Cline did not record a lot of up-tempo material — why not bring out a banjo and fiddle and really rock the house. "Bill Bailey" was just a little too dated for a "big finish, folks!"

When I was a young singer, I put two pictures up in my room: one of Patsy Cline, who died in 1963, and one of an equally tragic Billie Holiday who died in 1959. This small altar was a token of the debt I owed to both of them. I have often wondered if they ever met. It's unlikely that they did. However, it strikes me as a wonderful idea for a play.

ALWAYS ... PATSY CLINE continues at the Cincinnati Playhouse through Sunday.

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