Friday, May 30, 2008

Always ... Patsy Cline

With a title like Always ... Patsy Cline, you figure Ted Swindley's play will be about Patsy Cline. Well, it is. But his play is as much about a fan as it is about the star. And now's the time to get my prejudices right out front ...

Fans. Dyed-in-the-wool, Hosanna-in-the-Highest fans laying down palm fronds in the path of Bob Dylan, Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones or, hell, Obama, give me the creeps.

I guess the collateral damage of the deaths of John Lennon, the cute chick on Miami Vice, and numerous others at the hands of their admirers have had that effect on me. Not to mention David Letterman's accelerated hair loss at the hands of his stalker. Or Stephen King's unmentionable Misery. Egghhh. But we won't mention that.

OK. So, there's my bias, right in the police line-up window, folks.

I hate fans, fanatics and fandom. I hate electric fans. I even cut my finger in one once. Another one shocked me.

I hate fans, OK?

That said, this play takes place in a more innocent time. A different country, if you like. A kinder gentler country that didn't quite so much resemble a Stephen King novel. Or the ending of Nashville.

Now, here's the play's kinder, gentler plot ...

Louise Seger was Patsy's greatest fan—not in an I-want-a-piece-of-you way, but in a sister-she-never-had way. Louise (after having her heartstrings plucked by Patsy on the radio) ran into Patsy one night at a performance. For the rest of the night, Louise volunteered herself as a pushy stage manager and, the hell of it is, it all went well. From there on out, Patsy started writing Louise as if she were an old friend, in letters signed "Always ... Patsy Cline." The letters kept up until Cline's death in 1963.

It's touching. A story of a life as seen through reflected eyes. Louise, her eyes pressed up against the candy store window of stardom, looking at Patsy on the other side.

Yeah, it's touching, all right. But it's also really clever.

Swindley, cunningly, put the audience inside the play. Louise, sitting in star-struck wonderment in the presence of her idol is a stand-in for the audience, natch. Being part of the play is the dream that every fan dreams of. Intimacy with the star. Being part of the star's world. Being the star's friend. The dream you want is the dream you get. Clever.

The play's clever structure turns it into something more than a music revue. Of course, it is a music revue—complete with a well-oiled country band serving up kick-ass renditions of "Walking After Midnight," "I Fall to Pieces," "Sweet Dreams," "Crazy," and other fan faves. The musicians in question are: Skip Ellis on lead guitar; Chad Dance on bass guitar; Peter Leon on drums; and Jim Prosser on piano. Their sound is more honky-tonk than countrypolitan, which is just fine by this alt.countryboy.

Christine Mild, the lead singer/actress playing Patsy, has star charisma in her own right, and puts in an eerie, spot-on approximation of you-know-who. Joy Hawkins (who also directs the play) reminds me of Lucille Ball in her quirky comic take on Louise. Hers is a gentle embodiment of a lovable character—a great human being. Annie Wilkes she ain't.

It is, of course, entirely human to want to be friends with Patsy Cline, Bob Dylan, Elvis Presley, John Lennon, Branjelina or the latest crooning bobblehead on American Idol.

Human beings, as opposed to, say, cold-hearted critics, usually want to have that sort of relationship with their favorite actors and artists. We're tribal beings after all. In our DNA, we're hard-wired for villages of 20 or 30 people. In our hearts, we feel the singers and actors and artists giving us our sacred songs images and stories are very close to us. So close that they should be our friends. Once upon a time, it was possible. But that was a different country.

I'm not that big a fan of the way things are now.

‘Always ... Patsy Cline'
Short version: Songs from a lost country

Through June 22
Florida Studio Theatre
1241 North Palm Ave., Sarasota