Jukebox musicals have become the bread and butter for a lot of community theaters. Minimal casts, simple sets and the built-in audience that comes with a show about a popular singer or musical group are tough for an artistic director to resist.
In 1988, playwright Ted Swindley took 27 songs recorded by Patsy Cline and created Always . . . Patsy Cline, running now at Sonoma Arts Live through July 29. Not so much a musical biography as a snippet of Cline’s career as seen through the eyes of her biggest fan, it covers the six years from her appearance on Arthur Godfrey’s television program till her death at age 30 in an aviation accident.
Louise Seger (Karen Pinomaki) fell in love with Cline’s music the moment she heard it on a Texas radio station. When she hears that Patsy (Danielle DeBow) will be making a local appearance, she and some friends hightail it to the Empire Ballroom to discover no one’s there, but Patsy. They strike up a conversation and become fast friends. Patsy ends up spending the night at Louise’s before heading back out on her tour. They regularly corresponded after that night, and it’s those letters that are the basis for the show.
DeBow is a gifted vocalist who, in conjunction with her backup singers “The Jordanaires” (Sean O’Brien, F. James Raasch, Michael Scott Wells, Ted von Pohle) and musical director Ellen Patterson and a six-piece band, delivers a quality evening of Cline’s greatest hits, including “Sweet Dreams” and “Crazy.” The songs are interspersed with Louise’s musings about her life and her love for Patsy. Pinomaki is very entertaining as the bombastic, big-haired Louise, though there are moments where less would be more.
Director Michael Ross, who’s directed a few female-centric musicals in his day (Gypsy, Little Women, etc.) shows a real mastery of the material here. Also responsible for costumes and some of the set design, he gets almost everything right. Costume work is stellar, as DeBow must go through a dozen changes throughout the evening, with each one colorfully evoking period and personality. The two-level set/three-sided audience design is interesting, but it leads to some awkward blocking and audience perspectives.
Terrific performances, colorful design work and classic Americana combine to make Always . . . Patsy Cline one of the best jukebox musicals I’ve seen on a North Bay Stage.
Rating (out 5 five): ★★★★