A few local performers are so embedded in roles that they can’t wear them out. Frank Fiumano as Albin/Zaza in La Cage aux Folles comes instantly to mind, as does Bill Molesky’s Scrooge in Dickens of a Christmas. Bob Brown may have expressed doubts about the title character in Jesus Christ Superstar, but when he rejoined the cast the last time he was as winning as ever.
In this neck of the woods, there are never any doubts about Becky Bottrill as the immortal country song belter Patsy Cline, either in her mind or in ours. The career of the historical Cline lasted a little more than seven years, ending in a 1963 plane crash. Bottrill’s Always . . . Patsy Cline opened locally 13 years ago and is still running, this time as a Talent Company production at the New York State Fairgrounds’ New Times Theater. Clearly, Bottrill has been doings lots of things right.
Not that Always . . . Patsy Cline, created by Stephen Sondheim specialist Ted Swindley, is always the same old thing. True, James (“Doug”) Meech has returned from his gig with CNN to direct, assuring continuity from the earliest years, but much of the feel of the show has changed.
Running under the flag of Christine Lightcap’s Talent Company for the first time, this version enjoys richer production values than we’re used to seeing. That produces the seven-player Bodacious Bobcats for musical accompaniment, led by Robert G. Searle and featuring John Cadley, Henry Jankiewicz and others, and the four-singer Jordanaires for backup vocals.
The show is unashamedly a tribute musical, much in the vein of Unforgettable, about Nat King Cole, or My Way, on Frank Sinatra, both of which were performed once locally and then forgotten. A tribute show emphasizes the positive, sanding down rough corners and airbrushing blemishes. It’s not a bio-musical.
One would never guess from Always that Patsy was already married and divorced by the beginning of the action, retaining only a new name from the first husband and displacing her own, Virginia Hensley. None of that really matters, of course, except to say that as an unskilled high school dropout she was deeply experienced in disappointment and heartbreak.
What set Patsy Cline apart, along with the myth-making catastrophe of dying young (at age 30) and unexpectedly, were unique musical gifts. Born with perfect pitch, she sang with a resonant contralto in a lower register than any of her better-publicized and longer-lived rivals. The depth of those tones not only made her instantly recognizable but allowed her to convey the loneliness and despair that are so much a part of the country idiom. While the ironic “Crazy” (written by Willie Nelson) is probably her best-known hit, her breakthrough numbers in the first act, like “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “I Fall to Pieces” define her appeal.
Becky Bottrill has long had a local following and was one of the first People’s Choice winners for the Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Live Theater (SALT) Awards. She’s had wide experience in classic Broadway and is a known admirer of the very urban Barbra Streisand, a long way from the queen of country. She delivers 24 numbers in Always, meaning she’s constantly performing. There’s a smoky darkness to Bottrill’s voice when she turns into Patsy, giving evocations of shared pain. Slavish imitation could be inadvertently comic. What Bottrill does is to give us the means of sharing Patsy’s emotions. It’s almost like being there, she and the show seem to be saying.
Chatty comic interludes by worshipful fan Louise Seger (played by Molly Brown) allow for costume changes between every number. When Bottrill’s not belting, she’s zipping, hooking and buttoning. What she does not do is talk very much, usually only to fulfill Louise’s idealized vision of her. Partly, this is the wisdom of Swindley’s script. Tribute musicals want to bring alive the legend. And legends don’t spill the beans.
Not all 24 songs build on the same themes. Quite a few numbers are celebratory and upbeat, like the hand-clapping “Come On In,” and “San Antonio Rose,” inviting dancing in the aisles. The historical Patsy Cline made her bid for national exposure in 1957 on Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts, an unfriendly venue for country talents. She was, all the same, a crossover artist before the term was invented. One of her most characteristic songs was Cole Porter’s “True Love,” from the 1956 movie High Society, an adaptation of Philip Barry’s sophisticated comedy of affluence, The Philadelphia Story.
The narrative hook for Always is real-life Mississippi-born housewife Seger, who met Patsy by arriving before the crowd at Houston’s cavernous Esquire Ballroom in 1961, two years before the singer’s death. They shared a relatively brief time, but Patsy stayed overnight in the Seger household, and made eggs for breakfast before an unscheduled, early morning radio interview. After that Patsy kept in touch with cards and letters, signed, “Always . . . Patsy Cline,” providing the title of the show and a pun on her legendary longevity.
Part of the reason this Patsy Cline tribute persists when the Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra versions faded is that country music fans are more deeply attached to their artists than are those in other idioms. Swindley’s use of Louise’s actual words validates that unskimping, unironic devotion. In Louise’s view, Patsy is a Protestant paragon, totally without pretense, affectation or any visible character faults. She says, “I don’t want to get rich—just live good.” Try to imagine a comparable show about Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj.
Molly Brown, last seen as the conniving Antonia in the Bob Brown-Cathleen O’Brien production of Man of La Mancha a year ago, gives Louise some new spins. She is more assertive in duets like “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” Brown’s Louise is also more comic, knowing how unguarded her worship is, and libidinous than we’re used to seeing. Her Protestantism is by no mean Puritanical.
Becky Bottrill’s take on Patsy Cline has been pleasing audiences for a long time. She’s for always.
This production runs through Dec. 16. See Times Table for information.