‘Always . . . Patsy Cline’ at Walnut’s Studio 3

When a superstar needs a friend

Always… Patsy Cline isn’t really a play about Patsy Cline, although the country music legend’s songs provide the soundtrack for everything that happens. Nor is it really a play about Louise, a Texas mother and electronics technician (“We can’t all be hairdressers,” she quips) who adores Cline and keeps asking the local DJ to play her songs on the radio. It’s about a moment in time when, for one evening, these two women meet and enjoy each other’s company and bring us along for the ride.

Whelan (left), Stern: Housewives can sing, too. (Photo: Mark Garvin.)

The story, set in the early ‘60s, is simple (and also true). When fangirl Louise (Denise Whelan), discovers that Patsy (Jenny Lee Stern), will appear in Houston for a show, she rounds up her friends to arrive early and actually meets and befriends her idol. Patsy spends the night at Louise’s and, much to Louise’s surprise, subsequently maintains the relationship through letters and phone calls.

We learn a little about the women and their backstories, but that’s not really the point. Patsy Cline is a star who has gotten over a bad marriage. Louise is a single mother with an equally unhappy marriage in her past. For both of them, music makes life bearable, and music is what drives this show.

Teasing the audience

Mini-tensions erupt along the way. Will radio DJ Hal Harris (whom Louise describes as “Death eating a cracker”) play Patsy’s songs on the radio for Louise? Will he play them over and over again? Will he agree to interview Patsy? Will Louise get to hear her idol sing in person? And will Patsy and Louise ever see each other again?

We in the audience know what Louise doesn’t: that Patsy will die two years after their meeting. But even that tragedy, while acknowledged, doesn’t put a damper on the show. A momentary empty mike appears in the spotlight, and the show moves on. Stern re-emerges as Patsy and sings two more songs — “I’ve already done 25,” she chides an audience member who wants even more.

A good-humored irreverence pervades the performances, along with a touch of self-awareness. Teasing the men at the cabaret tables in the first row— including one on a Match.com date— becomes a highlight of the evening. While both women play with sensuality, there was an innocence to their flirtations that seems antiquated today.

Rotary phones

The set is split between a ’60s kitchen— with rotary phone and Philco refrigerator— and a raised stage where the two musicians (Billy Thompson on piano, and Spiff Wiegand on everything else) accompany the songs. A projection of a house painted green reminds us when we’re in Louise’s world; otherwise we’re in Patsy’s world on stage.

Audience members delighted in pointing out the familiar objects in the kitchen — “My mother had that stepstool”; “I used to have those beaded fruits”; “Remember that phone? Ours was yellow (or green, or beige)”— as much as they enjoyed tapping and humming along to the familiar tunes, like “I Fall to Pieces” and “Stupid Cupid.” Cline didn’t write those songs, but she sang them, and she’s remembered for them.

Mainly, it’s Stern’s voice that carries the show along. She mirrors Patsy Cline’s singing without imitating her, and fills the room with her music. Whelan’s occasional singing reminds us that she too possesses a voice to be reckoned with. But it’s Louise’s unadulterated adoration of Cline, not her voice, that makes us love her.

Ultimately Always concerns dreams and persistence. It’s a useful reminder that, no matter how successful we may be, we all need a friend sometimes.

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