A Short Walk with Patsy Cline leaves you wanting more. It will send you — back or for the first time — to Cline’s own recordings.
A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, by Dean Regan. Directed by Tom Frey. Staged by the Peterborough Players, Peterborough, New Hampshire, through September 14.
By Jim Kates
Eighty-two years ago this week, the singer we know as Patsy Cline was born in Winchester, Virginia. A little more than thirty years later, she died in an airplane crash in Tennessee. In her last decade, she transformed country music and left a recorded legacy of songs that have influenced several generations of music.
A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline sounds as though it might be the kind of dramacumentary that the Peterborough Players have indulged in during the past few seasons, a narrated life personified onstage, following a predictable arc of success and tribulation and ultimate uplift.
I expected it to be so. I was wrong.
It’s both more engaging and less substantial than that kind of theater.
Dean Regan’s script is actually nothing but a frame for Bridget Beirne’s singing of Patsy Cline’s songs in a roughly chronological order, increasingly successful as the original singer becomes more sophisticated. The crowd-pleaser is “Won’t You Come Home, Bill Bailey,” but I think Beirne is most brilliant with “Lovesick Blues” closing the first act, and “I Fall to Pieces” in the second.
It’s always risky when one singer takes on another’s persona, and always a choice whether to try to replicate the original voice or to cover it with a new interpretation. Beirne splits the difference, and her own voice is strong enough to make the concert a real pleasure, a chance to appreciate Beirne’s skill as well enjoy Cline’s tunes.
There’s no real narrative of Cline’s life — just quick allusions to her mother and her second husband in the kind of patter that goes between songs, and not very much of that.
The talking is left to the radio-station framework of the concertizing.
What Regan’s writing gets exactly right is radio. More than anything else, radio made Cline a star and her voice belongs to radio. But the way the play is written, broadcasting becomes more of a sidebar than a frame, a separate little show running parallel to Cline’s singing, interrupting and being interrupted by the concert.
Kraig Swartz plays the deejay Little Big Man, as well as other incidental characters as they come up, including a couple of stand-up comics helping to set the scene. Swartz brings all his energy and flair to bear, and he’s a lot of fun to watch, but he comes dangerously close to upstaging the star, and that’s not a good thing.
The reason is pretty clear. Outside her singing, a couple of car accidents and her dying, Cline’s life doesn’t seem to have been particularly dramatic, or unique in its material for staging. Shifting the focus off her and onto Little Big Man becomes the way Regan and the director, Tom Frey, have tried to distract the audience from this stark if reassuring reality. As theater, A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline is mighty thin, and the title comes close to being deceptive. We don’t get to walk with her at all, and the show doesn’t come near equating her with Christ, although apparently she was a good person as well as a great singer.
But the tribute to Cline, with its slight sideshow provided by Swartz, makes the evening more than enjoyable. A short show, not completely one genre (revue) or another (theatrical bio), A Short Walk with Patsy Cline leaves you wanting more. It will send you — back or for the first time — to Cline’s own recordings.
Jim Kates is a poet, feature journalist and reviewer, literary translator and the president and co-director of Zephyr Press, a non-profit press that focuses on contemporary works in translation from Russia, Eastern Europe and Asia.