If you hate country music as much as I do, especially those irritatingly twangy songs about unfaithful spouses who drink too much, you might be tempted to stay away from the Salem Community Theatre's current production of Ted Swindley's musical, "Always, Patsy Cline."
That would be a very bad decision. You'd be missing a well-crafted story told by an excellent, two-woman cast and backed by five first-rate musicians in the on-stage band.
Co-directors Gary and Cheryl Kekel keep the action moving swiftly on a set designed by Gary Kekel and Mark Frost. Gary Kekel also serves as musical director, and gets the most out of both actor-singers and musicians. The result is a thoroughly professional production that never loses the intimacy envisioned by the playwright.
Unlike most musicals based on real performers and their music, "AlwaysPatsy Cline" is no mere revue strung together with paper-thin plot and characterizations and a decent approximation of the style of the original artist or artists. This is a real, substantial play, with believable interactions between two warm, likable, three-dimensional characters based on two real people.
Swindley's script is based on the recollections of Texas divorcee Louise Seger of her 50-year friendship with country singer Patsy Cline. The friendship began when Seger attended one of Cline's performances with some friends. They arrived early and, when Cline came in to check out the facility before the show, Seger walked up to the singer and struck up a conversation. After helping Cline secure some concessions from management, the two women became fast friends.
Connie Cassidy does a dead-on impersonation of Patsy Cline, even though Cline's singing range went to the lower end of the alto range, and Cassidy is best known for her impressive soprano range, displayed in many past performances at SCT and elsewhere. Cassidy's transition into the lower range seems natural and never uncomfortable. She also projects the warmth and humility of Cline's working-class roots in her interactions with Louise's character.
Julie Benner is an absolute delight as Louise Seger. Benner's own Southern own roots are authentic-her family is from Alabama-and so are the warmth and humor she exudes as Seger. We really believe it when Seger simply goes up to Cline and strikes up a conversation with her.
Benner also embodies the southern tradition of storytelling that drives the narrative of the play. While one might suspect that some of the facts have been embellished for the benefit of the audience, they all have the ring of truth, accompanied by strong echoes of laughter from anyone listening. She also has an excellent singing voice that equals the high standard set by Cassidy.
Benner makes us believe Seger as a real woman who has experienced all the bad things Cline sang about, and who takes courage from the characters in Cline's song-stories. Similarly, we hear the conviction and authenticity in Cassidy's voice as she sings the Patsy Cline repertoire, including some crossover songs that one might not readily associate with Cline.
But the real magic of this production comes from the onstage chemistry between Cassidy and Banner. There is no pretense or artifice in their performances. They come across as a couple of Southern women who genuinely like each other, and trust each other with their most intimate secrets. As Seger says, "What good's a secret unless you can share it with someone?"
I would be remiss if I did not offer special praise to the Bodacious Bobcats, the onstage band consisting of Gary Kekel on piano, D. J. Dipanicis on electric guitar, Dan Kalosky on bass guitar, Ed Koran on pedal steel guitar and fiddle and Stephen Ley on drums. Their playing is as evocative of the period and the style of music as Cassidy's singing, and they add considerably to the authenticity of the production.
"Always...Patsy Cline will be presented again This Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Call ahead for reservations at 330-332-9688. I recommend this show for adults and mature teens, due to some of the subject matter of Cline's songs and her conversations with Seger. And don't be scared off by the country music. It's the people behind the music who count and who make this a highly entertaining theatrical experience.
[Guest reviewer Charles Calabrese, a resident of Wintersville, Ohio, has been writing performing arts reviews for print and broadcast for more than 30 years.]