Friday, August 15, 2003

Keep dancing, Sally: Struthers shakes it at Ogunquit

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Starting with a rousing "Yee-haw" from the audience, Always . . . Patsy Cline is a romping love affair of a musical, telling the story of one of the country music star’s most obsessed fans, and the unusual friendship that develops between them.

Louise Seger (Sally Struthers) is a Texas-sized woman with Texas-sized hair and a "Texas-sized imagination" who loves to listen to the music of her favorite singer, Patsy Cline (Christa Jackson). She first heard Cline on the "Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts Show" in 1957 and immediately fell in love with the singer’s voice.

Indeed, Jackson has mastered the twang, squeaks, and near-glottal-stops that made Cline’s singing so unique. But her performance is limited to an impersonation in a staged retelling of a story. Her singing is indeed excellent. And she hits all Cline’s big songs — there are 19 in the show and three as a sort of built-in encore. Yet her character is never truly developed. The only glimpse we really get of Cline’s inner life is in one short letter, the first she ever wrote to Louise, which appears late in the show.

Perhaps this is because the play is "licensed by the family and estate of Patsy Cline," as the program helpfully informs. There is no mention of — not even a cryptic allusion to — Cline’s rocky love life, including two husbands and at least two affairs. The best we get are stand-alone songs about broken hearts and promises, with no explanation that the reason Cline sang them with such feeling was that she identified all too well with the subject matter.

Fortunately, Struthers saves the play from being a flat set of unconnected songs. It is her narration and show-stealing performance that keeps the audience entertained throughout.

This is very different from how many of us know Struthers today, on television raising money for Save the Children. It is a reminder that Struthers won two Emmy Awards — admittedly, the most recent in 1979 — for her role as Archie Bunker’s daughter, Gloria, on TV’s All in the Family.

Here she plays a Southern woman, complete with a garish fringe-shirt like those an editor of mine in Missouri used to wear. Despite her middle-aged girth, Struthers remains remarkably flexible, and uses her entire body to convey her character’s deep emotions, from a celebration of divorce that nearly lifts off the stage to a "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" seated dance performance that must be seen to be believed.

Her stage presence is what makes this play. And though the Oregon native sometimes makes her Texas accent sound like a Dana Carvey impression of President George Bush I, she carries the stereotype of a fawning fan to a new height.

Chancing to meet Cline before a Houston show, Louise steps in and appoints herself Cline’s manager, then chauffeur, hotelier, and chef. She takes personally every aspect of the show, even conducting the band with a spare drumstick to make sure they don’t rush Cline’s soulful singing.

This is not a band that needs conducting. They play a number of characters as well, from a perhaps-they-do-need-a-conductor local backup band, to musicians in the spotlight themselves. All of them, including the steel player whose name is inexplicably omitted from the program, are excellent, neither overpowering nor undersupporting Cline and maintaining a current of energy throughout the show.

Some of that energy should have gone to the lighting crew. The spotlight operator was regularly late illuminating the stars. There was a strange "moonrise" during "Walking After Midnight," apparently because the light wasn’t lined up properly to begin with. And during some of the slow songs, the lights over the band flickered, not only distracting the audience but no doubt making the musicians’ jobs harder.

Struthers, however, needed no extra energy. Her outrageous antics sent both her and Jackson laughing regularly, and interactions with the audience brought everyone into the show.

The popular appeal of Cline’s music is made clear as she sings in Louise’s kitchen late at night: Louise identifies with every word. The audience left feeling like Louise’s reaction had been made manifest 40 years later: "It made me feel so alive."

Always...Patsy Cline
Written by Ted Swindley. Roy M. Rogosin, producing artistic director. With Sally Struthers and Christa Jackson. At the Ogunquit Playhouse, through Aug. 16. Call (207) 646-5511.

BACKSTAGE

• Thanks to the efforts of a lot of people from across the world, and most notably the teens themselves, the Story Quilt performance by the students in the Theater Project’s International Teen Festival went off superbly, melding tales and traditions to honor many cultures. Complete with an Arabic-speaking fox in a Palestinian fable, an overflowing pasta pot in the Italian tale of Strega Nona, and a practical solution for a too-noisy house, the teen actors amused audience members of all ages, including a little boy who added, from the seats, a second chicken sound-effect to the delightful cacophony.

• At Sanford Maine Stage, Rumors, by Neil Simon, opens August 15, detailing the calamitous evening a group of houseguests have, including gunshots, a car crash, and a visit from the police. Call (207) 324-9691 for tickets to the show, which runs through August 30.

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