Firebrand serves up two views of a country music icon, but the vehicle stays above the surface
Theater review by Kris Vire
Christina Hall as Patsy Cline in Always…Patsy Cline
Somewhat surprisingly, since it’s been kicking around for three decades now, I hadn’t ever managed to see Always…Patsy Cline until Firebrand Theatre’s production opened Tuesday night. But as I wrote in this space a few weeks ago, the universe has decided that this fall is my moment to re-engage with classic country music, and Firebrand is apparently in on the master plan.
The show, which Texas playwright Ted Swindley has spun out into its own cottage industry, is a musical two-hander that splits the difference between cabaret and monologue. One actress performs a whopping 27 numbers from the repertoire of Patsy Cline, who became one of the first female country singers to find crossover success, before her life was cut short in a plane crash in 1963, when she was just 30 years old. A second actress plays real-life superfan Louise Seger, who ingratiated herself with Cline at a Houston concert in 1961 and continued to correspond with the singer until her death; Seger narrates from a very forceful fan’s perspective.
The marriage between the two tracks in Swindley’s script is honestly a bit forced. The actress playing Patsy gets the lion’s share of the spotlight; certainly more of the show’s two-hour running time is devoted to musical numbers than to dialogue scenes. But then this Patsy hardly gets to speak for herself at all; giving Louise the narration duties means letting her tell us something Patsy said to her in past-tense and third-person, even while Patsy is standing mute right next to her.
It makes for an odd imbalance in the script, but director Brigitte Ditmars’s production finds a clever way to even things out. Like countless pairs of male actors in True West before them, actors Harmony France and Christina Hall are alternating roles from night to night in Firebrand’s staging.
Harmony France as Patsy Cline in Always…Patsy Cline
At Tuesday’s official press opening, Hall played Patsy, reprising her performance from Theo Ubique’s 2014 staging. Hall absolutely nails—maybe even improves upon—Cline’s creamy contralto in ballads like “I Fall to Pieces” and “Crazy.” France, meanwhile, brings the determined energy of a manic evangelist to Louise. Their dynamic on opening night made me eager to see what the reverse might look like. (My colleague Alex Huntsberger went the distance, catching a weekend preview with France as Patsy and Hall as Louise before returning on Tuesday to see the actors swap; watch for his review at Time Out Chicago for a direct comparison.)
Always… may not go too deep on either of its subjects, but if you consider it as a hybrid form—call it an enhanced revue—it’s a toe-tappin’ good trip down one lane of country music history.
Firebrand Theatre at The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave). By Ted Swindley. Directed by Brigitte Ditmars. Musical direction by Andra Velis Simon.
Cast: Harmony France (Louise Seger/Patsy Cline), Christina Hall (Patsy Cline/Louise Seger).
Band: Andra Velis Simon (conductor/keyboard), Steven Romero Schaeffer (guitars), Emma Sheikh (fiddle) and Tina Muñoz Pandya (drums).
Designers: Lauren Nichols (scenic), Giselle Castro (sound), Cat Wilson (lighting), Steph Taylor (costumes), Keith Ryan (wigs), Rachelle R. Kolecke (props). Casting: Adelina Feldman-Schultz. Assistant director: Lauren Griffith. Stage manager: Jacqueline Widman.
Running time: 2 hours; one intermission. Through December 15. Tickets ($40–$50) at firebrandtheatre.org.
Photographs by Michael Brosilow.
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