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American Idol

'Always, Patsy Cline' a portrait of a star, a fan, a friendship

By David Templeton

The great Patsy Cline died more than 45 years ago, at the age of 30, and since then the Virginia-born country singer's life and music have become the stuff of pop-culture legend, with numerous books, tribute albums and movies exploring the dark interior of Cline's tumultuous life, hardscrabble childhood, abuse-tinged marriages and bouts with depression. There must be a law that every biographical effort focusing on a famous country singer has to be a tear-stained, gut-wrenching, emotional downer. If there is such a law, then consider it broken, because Ted Swindley's Always, Patsy Cline—now playing at Santa Rosa's Sixth Street Playhouse—is about as undepressing a show as you are likely to see, a rousing, humor-filled celebration of Cline's music and personality that at times is more like a party than a play.

Unconventionally structured and playfully surreal, Always, Patsy Cline was inspired by a real-life, two-year-long correspondence between the singer and Louise Seger, a boisterous Houston-based fan who, after bumping into Cline before a concert in 1961, invited her to spend the night at her house after the show. Though Seger never saw Cline again, that one night of homespun female bonding sparked off a pen-pal friendship that lasted until the plane crash that ended Cline's life in 1963.

While this is pretty slight stuff to hang a whole show on, playwright Swindley, who's made a career of packaging everything from country tunes to bachelor pad music into bouncy-fluffy stage revues, has nevertheless created a thoroughly entertaining two-woman musical, a winning combination of great songs and down-home yarn-spinning, with just a dash of pathos to keep things grounded in reality as the action slips back and forth between Patsy Cline singing her most famous tunes and Louise engaging the audience to tell the story of that one big night when she met her American idol.

As Patsy and Louise, Sebastopol actresses Mary Gannon Graham and Liz Jahren, respectively, take turns stealing the show from each other. Graham, backed onstage by a six-piece country band, convincingly channels Cline's throaty contralto and laid-back stage presence, and though she has almost no spoken lines—even in kitchen-table conversation, Patsy reveals her feelings through her songs, microphone and everything—Graham also effectively captures the singer's off-stage insecurity and sweet, slightly wary ordinariness.

It's been a strong year for Graham, who started 2008 by playing the title character in the Sonoma County Repertory Theater's hit production of Shirley Valentine, and then appeared as Kate in the Rep's record-breaking all-pirate version of The Taming of the Shrew. A longtime player on the Sonoma County theater scene, Graham rarely gets to sing onstage, and her performance here is likely to make people wonder why that is; even suffering from the flu, as she was last Thursday night, she proves herself to be a powerhouse singer as she performs more than 20 of Cline's most memorable tunes.

As Louise, Jahren almost sets the stage afire, playing the Texas divorcee as a life-loving, over-the-top Southern belle with a loud voice and a fearlessness that, if it's anything like the real Louise Seger, must have been part of her appeal when Cline met her at the bar of the Esquire Ballroom. If Graham-as-Patsy is the heart of the play, then with 99 percent of the spoken lines, Jahren (last seen in Sixth Street's Sweetest Swing in Baseball) is literally the voice, spinning the Cliff's Notes version of her own life, as well as Cline's.

The show is playfully co-directed by Elizabeth Craven and Elly Lichenstein, and following its Santa Rosa run, will move to Petaluma's Cinnabar Theater for a three-week stint beginning Dec. 31.

One could not say there is much drama in Always, Patsy Cline, and it truly does slip into the realm of the surreal whenever Cline, hanging out in Louise's house or loitering near the jukebox, produces that microphone and starts singing, but, unconventional as it is, this is a surprisingly upbeat, truly feel-good show. Even when mention comes, late in the play, of Cline's tragic death, the lingering feeling is one of celebration and gratitude—gratitude that her amazing voice once graced the world and that, troubled or not, for one night way back in 1961, she was able to share an evening of camaraderie and warmth with a crazy fan from Texas, touched forever by the friendship of a truly good soul.

'Always, Patsy Cline' runs Thursday–Sunday through Dec. 7 at the Sixth Street Playhouse. Thursday–Saturday at 8pm; also Saturday–Sunday at 2pm. 52 W. Sixth St., Santa Rosa. $14–$30. Call the box office at 707.523.4185.

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