'Beyond being a dead ringer for the singer, she (Natasha O'Brien) matches Cline’s rich, crystalline voice with stunning effect.' - Joff Schmidt
A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, Rainbow Stage’s 60th season opener, may be a treat for fans of the country crooner. For everyone else, though, it amounts to pretty thin theatre.
The 1991 jukebox musical, created by Dean Regan, offers more than two dozen Patsy Cline songs with others from the era, in the space of just over two hours - and not very much else.
The loose framing device is a retrospective of Cline’s work being presented by Virginia radio station WINC on March 5, 1963 which, if you’re familiar with Patsy Cline history, you’ll know was a significant date in the singer’s life.
A DJ named Little Big Man (Cory Wojcik) sets up the songs, and Patsy (Natasha O’Brien) sings ‘em. End of story, such as it is.
Little Big Man occasionally gives us a ripped-from-the-encyclopedia-factoid about Cline’s life. But she herself never really gets to speak to any of the other characters onstage (she’s backed by The Jordanaires - ably played by Aaron Hutton, Simon Miron, Sam Plett and Markian Tarasiuk - and an impressive six-person live band). And so we’re left with not much sense of who Patsy Cline was.
It’s a choice on Regan’s part to focus on music to the exclusion of biography - and it’s a creatively lazy one, since the best jukebox musicals can offer great tunes along with story and character. This is far from the best of jukebox musicals.
But director Carson Nattrass and his cast and crew make the best of it. It’s a good-looking show, thanks to Jamie Plummer’s versatile set, Scott Henderson’s effective lighting and some great costumes. Wojcik has a couple of nice comic bits as WINC’s one-man news/sports/traffic department. The Jordanaires do double-duty as the station’s jingle singers, providing a few cute moments.
Hutton, Plett and Tarasiuk don't fare well when they’re stuck doing 'comedic' one-liners at a few points between songs. These jokes aren’t corny. They’re just lame, straying to offensive (honestly, cut the “my wife’s so fat...” jokes, people).
Fortunately, the one thing that really recommends the show is perhaps its most important element - O’Brien’s performance as Patsy Cline. Beyond being a dead ringer for the singer, she matches Cline’s rich, crystalline voice with stunning effect.
She’s able to break hearts with the last, longing note of "Faded Love," and lift spirits with a soulful "Just a Closer Walk with Thee." She convincingly sells Cline hits like "Walkin’ After Midnight," "Back in Baby’s Arms," "Sweet Dreams," and "I Fall to Pieces."
It’s a good thing O’Brien’s pitch-perfect vocal performance is as good as it is, too, or she’d have the show stolen from her by a superb backing band under music director/pianist Andrew St. Hilaire (all are outstanding musicians, but Kris Ulrich’s tasteful guitar solos and the ripping fiddle solo by Kristina Bauch that opens the second act deserves special mention).
If you’re a lover of Patsy Cline’s music, O’Brien’s stellar turn in the lead role will probably make A Closer Walk... worth your while. Everyone else, though, might wish for a piece that gets a bit closer to who Patsy Cline really was.
A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline runs at Rainbow Stage until June 15. Hear Joff Schmidt on Up to Speed on Monday June 9 at 4:20 p.m.