By Patrick O’Brien
With the recent announcement of Artists Lounge Live, a Chicago agency dedicated to pairing stellar local talent with our favorite pop singer songbooks, Firebrand Theatre’s production of the down-home revuesical Always…Patsy Cline seems somewhat serendipitous. This town, it seems, really wants to get up close and personal with their favorite stars of yesteryear.
Though, really, given half a chance, who wouldn’t want to spend some time with Patsy Cline? These days, when “authenticity” can seem like just another pose, she still shines like the genuine article, even fiftysome years after her all-too-early death. She could let fly every heartbreak in the world but would just as easily lend an ear to a wayward soul over a couple Schlitzes.
Louise Seger could attest to this — she and Patsy quickly became friends and pen pals after a stop in Houston, where Louise lived and was a personality in her own right, as she regularly hounded the local disc jockey to play Patsy’s records on demand. A bond shaped by the stoic realities of holding their own and holding true to themselves, writer-producer Ted Swindley used their brief but enduring correspondence as the basis for the two-hander that’s become a favorite the world over.
Christina Hall has a history with Always…Patsy Cline; she played the title part at Theo Ubique five years ago, and it crops up elsewhere on her regional resume. There’s a reason for that: she’s damn good at being Patsy Cline. In a post-jukebox musical world, where performers have to match the artist’s sound but only just enough, she can pair Cline’s depth-plumbing contralto with her own ingratiating glow. Firebrand’s twist: Hall plays Cline every other show, alternating the role of Louise with Harmony France. (Hall played Cline on press night.) And while Louise doesn’t have much to sing, France is nonetheless delightfully insouciant, the brash yang to Patsy’s deep-running-still-water ying.
Quibbles? Well, there’s a curious one-sidedness to it; as in, there’s a lot of Louise narrating “we talked and talked” while Patsy sagely nods her head. Granted, Patsy doesn’t need to let us into her head with dialogue; she’ll let us into her heart with an old favorite in no time anyway.
Also curious, at least for this reviewer: the most affecting moment wasn’t a song, solid as Hall and France put ‘em across with some help from Andra Velis Simon and the house band The Bodacious Bobcats. It was a quick and simple line near the end. Louise says “[Patsy and I] exchanged addresses. You know how that is.” True, people just as effortlessly swap phone numbers and social media handles all the time now, but something about that lost art of letter-writing — committing a friendship to paper and trusting that paper on a journey across time and country — lends the line an unexpected poignancy.
Even so, we hope to know that warmly paradoxical feeling of meeting an old friend for the first time, be they radio technician or country-crossover star. That’s worth the trip to the Den: have a drink, have a hoot, get up close and personal with a sterling songbook. Ain’t crazy in the least.
Firebrand Theatre presents “Always…Patsy Cline” through January 4, at the Den Theatre’s Janet Bookspan Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. More information and tickets are available here.