KPBS AIRDATE: April 14, 1993
Some people say the life of an artist isn’t really relevant to the work. Does knowing all the sordid personal details of say, Picasso, affect your response to his art?
But when it comes to singing aching, heart-breaking, gut-wrenching country Western songs, and singing them like you’ve really known that pain, it might be informative to find out where that pain is coming from.
…Well, don’t get your hopes up. You won’t get any of those insights from “Always… Patsy Cline,” a touring show that is currently having its West coast premiere at the San Diego Rep.
There is the vaguest allusion to Patsy’s being beaten up regularly by her husband, and her staying with him for the sake of the children, but that’s about it. The rest is mere narrative, the 30 year-old remembrances of a die-hard Patsy-addict, a Texas housewife named Louise who spent an evening with the country singing star only two years before her death at age 30.
(Just a parenthetical note: Have you ever stopped to wonder about how many musical luminaries and wannabes have gone down in light plane accidents? Is this some sort of make-a-legend conspiracy? Is there a heavily populated musical Bermuda Triangle where they’re all playing and singing their hearts out? Just a thought…. With no real drama onstage, my mind started to wander…)
Anyway, unlike the Globe’s summer piece about Hank Williams, or the film “Sweet Dreams,” “Always… Patsy Cline” is less about the star than about a fan. And we don’t learn too much about her, either. Louise just keeps yappin’ away, though it’s mostly the details of her falling in love with Patsy’s music, calling the hometown Houston radio station every day to make requests, cooking bacon and eggs with the crooner late at night after her Houston concert, and staying up all night with her talking, though we don’t actually find out about what.
Patsy, in fact, has no lines in the show, which was created and directed by Texan Ted Swindley, based on a true story. In reality, Patsy Cline and Louise Seger carried on a correspondence up until the star’s death in 1963. We even get to hear excerpts from one of the letters.
But, thankfully, what we get to hear most, even more than Louise’s chatter, is Patsy’s music. Denise Hillis, another Texan, moans, growls, yodels, and belts out 22 Cline favorites, including the despairing “I Fall to Pieces,” “Lovesick Blues,” “She’s Got You,” the Hank Williams trademark “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and the old Willie Nelson wailer, “Crazy” (that only called up images of Little Big Ears Perot in my mind).
Hillis makes you miss Patsy, and Ellen Swenson, as the scrawny, hyperverbal Louise, makes you know you’re in Texas, despite the spartan set. They’re both wonderful. The costumes are certainly evocative — Patsy’s got a new one every couple of songs. And the onstage band is suitably twangy, though a bit too unobtrusive. I could’ve done with more pickin’ and strummin’.
But it’s still down-home, hot-damn country time in Horton Plaza. Unfortunately, there’s no two-steppin’ in the aisles.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.