Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association. Photo by Michael Brosilow.
The first thing you notice upon walking into the Bookspan Theatre at the Den is that the versatile space has been turned into a quite realistic honky tonk bar (thanks to scenic designer Lauren Nichols). There is country music playing while a four-piece band warms up onstage. As the lights dim and show starts, Harmony France and Christina Hall take the stage. For the performance I saw, France played the iconic country singer and Hall played her friend Louise Seger, though the actresses, both of whom have played Patsy previously, switch roles for half of the performances. It shouldn’t matter, really, which one you see: both are excellent performers with wonderful voices. What does matter is that this Brigitte Demars-directed show brings these women to life in a realistic and celebratory way. Whether you’re a Cline fan going in or not, this musical will likely make you one.
Jukebox musicals can be a hit or miss proposition, but the best of them tell a story that the audiences will care about. Most of the time, it is a biographical story about the main character. The unique thing about this musical (written by Ted Swindley) is its point of view; it is presented from the perspective of someone who was, in real life, both a devout fan and a friend of the star. In 1957, while Cline was an up-and-coming country singer, Seger heard one of her songs on the Arthur Godfrey show and instantly became one of Cline’s biggest fans, calling her local radio DJ multiple times each day to request her music.. A few years later, in 1961, when Cline’s tour took her to Seger’s home base of Houston, the two met and became fast friends, remaining that way for the rest of the star’s life.
As Seger recounts for us the night she met and befriended Cline, we learn a great deal about both women’s lives while hearing a monumental number (27!) of Cline’s hits, many of which (like “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces”) are classics in the country genre. The set design puts both Cline and Seger within feet of the audience—Seger is seated much of the time at one of the cabaret tables—which makes this very personal story feel even more personal.
At this point, I have to discuss the version of the show I actually saw, but I have no doubt that the reverse casting is just as wonderful. As Seger, Hall paints an intimate portrait of the woman she got to know. Her joy in Cline’s music is real; watching her watch Patsy is almost as much of a pleasure as watching France perform the role. Hall’s jovial and very friendly characterization invites everyone present to feel the same kinship that Seger feels with the star: the women have much in common, though Cline is clearly the less effusive of the two.
France’s portrayal of Cline is utterly amazing. Close your eyes and you might believe you were actually listening to one of her records: she has the singer’s lovely alto voice and vocal inflections down cold. Open them again and you see just how much work the actress has put into the role: watching her sing these songs, you know that her Patsy is feeling every emotion within them as she sings. I don’t know if the real Cline had this kind of passion to go along with that voice, but France certainly does, and her performance manages to create a fully rounded character even though, mostly, Patsy just sings her songs.
Ditmars helps her tiny cast find every bit of joy and pain in this story, and music director Andra Velis Simon and her band recreate Cline’s recorded sound beautifully. Kudos also to sound designer Giselle Castro, who put in the work behind that recreation. In the honky tonk and radio songs, there is just enough of the feel of that era’s amplification to let the show live in its moment while retaining the modern clarity we expect.
The feminist musical theatre company Firebrand (for which France is Artistic Director) has, in its first two seasons, already become a glorious fixture in the Chicago theatre scene. With Always… Patsy Cline, it begins its third season on a high note with this lovely, sweet and personal show that tells of both a remarkable talent and a true female friendship. It may not be a holiday show, but it will absolutely make you feel good. And you’ll probably leave singing Patsy Cline songs, which isn’t a bad thing either.
Always… Patsy Cline is now playing at the Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee, Chicago, IL, until Dec 15. The show runs approximately three hours; there is one intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.