You could do far worse in life than to spend an afternoon or evening with Patsy Cline. And for the couple of hours that singer/actor Sara Catherine Wheatley impersonates the great country singer onstage in the musical Always, Patsy Cline at Broadway Rose Theatre, it’s tough to think of anything better, either.
Wheatley, who came from Alabama, lived and worked in Portland from 2007 to 2014, starring in shows as varied as Hairspray, The Drowsy Chaperone, and Cats. She now lives in Nashville, and is back for her third go-round with Patsy at Broadway Rose, repeating her role from runs in 2009 and 2013. It’s like slipping into a pair of boots that grow more comfortable every time you try them on.
Always, Patsy Cline, directed here by Chan Harris, is nominally a play about the night in 1961 when Cline bonded with a fan in Houston, good ol’ gal Louise Seger (played, again, with drawling exuberance by Sharon Maroney), and went home with her after her concert, where they chatted up a storm in the kitchen and living room, talking about kids and men and cooking and the whimsicalities of life. This actually happened, and Patsy and Louise remained friends, writing to each other until Cline died in a plane crash in 1963, at age 30.
The play itself, created in 1988 by Ted Swindley, is a ramshackle thing, light and frivolous and susceptible to a fair share of horseplay and scene-stealing that can feel straight out of an old-fashioned vaudeville act. Never mind that. It’s mainly an excuse for the music, a terrific tide of 28 songs made famous by Cline and others, from giant hits like Walkin’ After Midnight and I Fall to Pieces to gospel greats like Just a Closer Walk with Thee to a rousingly upbeat Shake Rattle and Roll, and the music’s why you’re here. Think of it as a concert with a story tacked on, then sit back and enjoy the ride.
For a performer, singing the music of someone whose voice is famous can be a perilous thing. Are you looking for mannerisms, vocal tone, personality? How much of the original musician do you bring to it, and how much do you assert yourself? Sometimes the best thing to do is to emphasize your own style, your own approach to the music, creating a tribute rather than an impersonation.
Wheatley creates an astonishing fusion. It’s not quite Patsy – Cline had a looseness and controlled urgency to her singing that were hers and hers alone – but Wheatley’s singing is so remarkably reminiscent of Patsy’s that it’s almost as if you were in the presence. Cline was a genuine diva and a crossover pop star, bigger than any single genre although country was her home, and Wheatley’s obviously studied her style long and hard, to the point that she can wear it with startling confidence. That dark molasses tone that comes from someplace deep and personal and envelops song and audience alike is here, at turns yearning and brash and funny, and always the biggest, most astonishing thing in the house. So are the audacious glissandos, seemingly careless but actually as nuanced and purposeful as the slide of a bottleneck guitar, that ride slowly, dangerously, enthrallingly from underneath to a plateau of perfect pitch. Storytelling is at the soul of country music, and Wheatley captures not just the narrative but the emotion of the tale, turning it loose to roil things up but never letting it out of her control. She also captures an important aspect of Cline’s singing that isn’t always recognized, her affinity for jazz phrasing. Wheatley plays with the meters, pushing the beat a little bit forward or holding it a little bit back, creating uncertainty and surprise.
Singing in the 1950s and early ’60s, Patsy was in the midst of a fertile period when American music was mixing and merging and playing off itself, freely blending elements of pop, swing, rhythm & blues, honkytonk, Delta, bluegrass, trad folk, jazz, gospel, Tin Pan Alley, country, and early rock ’n’ roll into an exciting and largely optimistic American stew, no matter how low-down and brokenhearted any particular song happened to be. Popular music was reaching out, maybe for the last time, to an audience of everybody, before barricading itself into mini-silos of disparate and carefully marketed special interests. (For all its creativity, it was far from a cultural Utopia. “Race music” was still a carefully segregated category, country was largely a home for white folks, and rock ’n’ roll was being built by white musicians, who cashed in, on a base of music by black artists, who largely didn’t. But walls were beginning to tumble.)
Always, Patsy Cline captures this heady ferment without making a big deal out of it, giving its audience a gentle and stylish ride into Nostalgialand that is abetted by its fine design elements. Shana Targosz’s costuming, from Maroney’s comically divorcée-gaudy outfits to the parade of costumes for Wheatley, from cowgirl-fringe to high heels and tailored suits that subtly underscore Cline’s journey from her country roots to more mainstream popularity, are a major bonus; and Jane Holmes deserves a tip of the hairspray can for her spot-on wig designs.
Seated stage left in Grand Ole Opry outfits are a crack musical combo led by music director Barney Stein on piano, with fiddler Jon Newton, guitarists Neal Grandstaff and Erik Crew, slide guitarist Chris Miller, bassist Will Amend, and drummer Bob Shotola. They’re a constant presence, driving things forward, underpinning the singing with precision and light verve. They also sound as if they could cut loose if given half a chance, and it would’ve been fun if they had during pre-show and intermission.
In the meantime, there are those songs, many of them Patsy Cline signatures, others traditional or better-known from other singers. Things kick off with an upbeat, lightly comic Honky Tonk Merry Go Round, move Back in Baby’s Arms, touch in on Honky Tonk Angels and Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart and Bob Wills’s San Antonio Rose and a bunch of others before Wheatley winds up for a big one and floats a high note somewhere around a mile and a half above a high C to resoundingly bring the house down at the end of Lovesick Blues. And that’s just the first act. Move on after intermission to the likes of Sweet Dreams, Crazy (Willie Nelson wrote it; Patsy made it famous), Bill Monroe’s Blue Moon of Kentucky, the ballad If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child), an upbeat Seven Lonely Days, the gospel tune How Great Thou Art, and more. Sit back and enjoy.
Friends, this is American music. This is American soul. And this is an American voice. Let ’er roar.
Always, Patsy Cline continues through May 6 at Broadway Rose’s New Stage, 12850 S.W. Grant Ave., Tigard. Ticket and schedule information here.