Photograph by Dave Lepori
COUNTRY GAL: Judith Miller plays Patsy Cline for San Jose Stage Company.
Crazy On You
Patsy Cline tribute traces a musical obsession
By Steve Palopoli
NEVER under-estimate the morbid nature of pop culture. When we watch Titanic, most of us are secretly waiting for the ship to sink. And when we go to see the story of a musical icon who died too young, some part of us is waiting for the plane to go down.
Patsy Cline's went down in 1963, when she was 30 years old. And when it crashes in the San Jose Stage's revival of Always ... Patsy Cline, it doesn't disappoint. In its symbolic treatment, it provides the production's most poignant moment.
And yet, Ted Swindley's musical isn't really about Cline—it's possible to learn far more about her from reading the accompanying production notes than from what's presented onstage. Really, it's a musical tribute, featuring 25 of the songs Cline performed in her short career, as delivered by Judith Miller with a stellar backing band.
The dramatic device interwoven throughout is the story of Louise Seger, who follows Cline's career from her kitchen, becomes the proverbial obsessed fan, then gets to meet Cline, eventually corresponding with her until her idol's tragic death. Incredibly, Seger really did exist, and the basics, at least, of her story are true. Each letter to Seger was signed "Love Always, Patsy Cline," which is where the musical gets its name. But even the letter-exchange doesn't come until very late in the proceedings; the Seger story is mostly used as a series of entertaining introductions that link the songs. Still, Marie Shell as Louise delivers an incredible performance; she disappears into the role so completely, it's almost impossible to remember that the Shakespearean-trained actress is not actually a Houston housewife with a fetish for "I Fall to Pieces." After a while, her monologues to the audience do start to seem less like a plot device and more like a portrait of a fan to end all fans; there's an authenticity to her dedication that any musical true believer will be able to relate to.
Miller looks enough like Cline (the show sticks to the one, most famous image of the singer, despite the fact that she looked quite different through the years). She has a somewhat different vocal style, more like Eartha Kitt in its theatricality, but a strong voice. Both Seger and Shell are reprising their roles here from San Jose Stage's production of Always ... Patsy Cline over a decade ago, and they're comfortable with the roles.
The production has been simply and effectively staged by co-directors Randall King and Rick Singleton. In particular, the lighting by Selina G. Young is minimalist but essential to creating the mood for each era and place to which the story jumps.
ALWAYS ... PATSY CLINE, a San Jose Stage Company production, plays Wednesday–Thursday at 7:30pm, Friday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm, through April 26 at San Jose Stage Company, 490 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $16.50–$45. (408.283.7142).
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