Always … Patsy Cline” purports to be a musical tribute to country singing legend Patsy Cline, but it should really be called “Always … Sally Struthers.” Struthers plays Louise Seger, a fanatically adoring fan, and she takes the stage like a hurricane, sweeping Cline aside with so many gestures, tics, bumps and grinds that the late superstar seems mellow and passive, the exact opposite of what she really was.
On its own terms, Struthers’ bawdy, explosive characterization is entertaining, until it becomes clear that the fan is upstaging the star at every turn. Strutting before us in black and red cowboy boots, she pours out her admiration for Patsy, an attachment expressed with popping eyes and spine-chilling screams. Christa Jackson’s Cline first appears singing a tentative rendition of “Back in Baby’s Arms.” Jackson gives “Anytime” more intensity, but still comes off as a nice, polite Southern gal. Jessica Lange, who played Cline in the film “Sweet Dreams,” has said, “Patsy never held anything back”; Jackson, possibly intimidated by Struthers’ scene-stealing antics, is competent but overly cautious.
Struthers’ Louise praises Cline with broad generalities that offer no insight into the performer’s character. Then Jackson, as though prodded with a hot iron, suddenly springs to life. Her voice takes on new levels, and she joyously belts out “Come on in (and Make Yourself at Home)” and “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.”
Jackson should have been allowed moments when she did her numbers without interruption, but director Sharon Rosen encourages Struthers to clap, laugh and react throughout each song as it plays. The script becomes ludicrous when Cline suggests that Seger tell the drummer not to rush tempo, and permits her to supervise the work of the other musicians. No star on earth would ask a know-nothing fan to run her show. We’re asked to believe that Seger goes to a club owner and negotiates a deal for Cline, with Cline’s complete approval.
“Your Cheating Heart” is a highlight, though Struthers again barges in, waving drumsticks in the air, beating cymbals, pounding music stands, hitting the fiddler’s leg. But Jackson by now has found her footing, and she transcends these distractions with driving interpretations of “Stupid Cupid,” “Three Cigarettes” and an exquisitely sung lullaby, “(If I Could See the World Through) The Eyes of a Child.” By the time she socks across “Shake Rattle and Roll,” she fully evolves into Patsy Cline.
Ted Swindley’s script never answers a basic question: Why did Louise Seger focus on this particular star? Worship usually encompasses unhealthy identification, jealousy, a sense of inner emptiness. Louise’s devotion is just pure, mindless adoration, and she cues the crowd to applaud each number like a human TelePrompTer. We never learn anything about Patsy Cline as a person, the well-known strength, ambition, guts and rage. As a result, news of her death in an airplane crash isn’t as moving as it might have been.
Fortunately, the show features an outstanding onstage quintet, with musical director John Randall contributing fine, nimble work on keyboards. Therese Bruck’s costumes have a garish charm, and Miles Ono’s sound design strikes an ideal balance between vocals and musicians. Karen Stephens provides Struthers with an amusingly exaggerated hairdo.