Country singer Patsy Cline’s untimely death at age 30 in a 1963 plane crash was a tragedy. But a new local production of the tribute musical “Always … Patsy Cline” is anything but.
Thanks to the engaging and in-the-moment comic performance of show co-star Cathy Barnett, the production of “Always” that opened Wednesday at North Coast Repertory Theatre was unexpectedly hilarious.
Ted Swindley’s 1988 musical is based on the true story of the friendship between Cline and Houston single mom Louise Seger. After meeting at a concert, they exchanged letters for two years until Cline’s death. The musical gets its name from the sign-off that Cline used at the end of every letter.
The character of Louise narrates the story in direct address to the audience, explaining how she discovered Cline on a 1957 Arthur Godfrey TV broadcast, made daily call-in requests for Cline songs on her local radio station for years and finally boldly befriended the singer at a tour stop at a Houston honky-tonk.
As a result, the character of Louise in “Always” is a fully three-dimensional character brought to vivid and entertaining life by Barnett, who has played the role in dozens of productions nationwide. Barnett’s improvisations, audience interaction and slightly ballsy and kooky performance steals every scene.
As written, the character of Cline is sadly one-dimensional and she has very little to say. She is portrayed almost entirely through sung performances by North Coast Rep veteran Katie Karel.
Karel has a well-trained singing voice and an endearing stage persona. While her voice isn’t an exact match with Cline’s deeper, earthier tone, Karel does a fine job interpreting the songs in Cline’s style.
The score features 27 songs from Cline’s brief six-year career, including her famous hits “I Fall to Pieces,” “Crazy,” “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “Sweet Dreams.” They’re all well-sung by Karel, as well as some covers of other singers’ hits, “Stupid Cupid” and “Your Cheatin’ Heart.”
There’s no skimping on Cline’s music in the production, which runs two hours with intermission. But there’s scant information on who Cline was as an artist and woman, except for a few very brief mentions about her up-and-down marriage, her child, her lonely life on tour and her lack of business acumen.
The production is directed by Allegra Libonati, who gives Barnett free rein to forge into the audience and wildly interact with the onstage band during Karel’s songs. Libonati clearly sees Barnett’s performance as lightning in a bottle and lets it go, but in several cases Barnett pulls focus away from Karel during some of her best-sung numbers.
Marty Burnett designed the well-appointed three-panel set that depicts the honky-tonk, a bandstand and the 1950s-style kitchen of Louise’s home, where Cline spent one night in 1961.
The able onstage band is led by keyboardist Daniel Doss with bassist Fred Ubaldo Jr., drummer Jeff Dalrymple and pedal steel guitarist/trombonist Tim Cook. Matthew Novoty designed lighting and Elisa Benzoni created costumes.
“Always” runs just three weekends, and judging by the crowd’s reaction on Wednesday night, tickets will go fast.
“Always … Patsy ClineWhen: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Plus 2 p.m. Dec. 27. Through Dec. 30.
Where: North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987D Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Solana Beach
Tickets: $45. Discounts available.
Phone: (858) 481-1055
-- Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union Tribune