Several years ago, I reviewed a production of Always … Patsy Cline in San Jose. Reading that review again now, after seeing Jewel Theatre’s new production of Ted Swindley’s 1988 musical about the country music legend, I’m stunned at how I described it.
My review back then focused mostly on the “morbid nature of pop culture” and our fascination with disasters like plane crashes (one of which killed Cline in 1963, when she was only 30 years old). I also described the musical’s main character, Louise Seger—a real-life woman from Houston who indeed did befriend Cline in the early 1960s, and through whose eyes we follow Cline’s career in Always—as an “obsessed fan.”
I certainly made it sound dark, didn’t I? But that was the tone of that particular production—reverent and somber, and moving inevitably toward a tragic ending—so I couldn’t really imagine it any other way.
But Jewel Theatre’s production of Always could not possibly be further from that. It’s a celebration of Cline’s life and music that’s really a celebration—hell, it’s a straight-up party. I honestly can’t even remember the exact moment when the plane goes down; it kind of gets swept up in the always-rolling interplay of what is essentially a two-woman show, with Julie James as Cline, and Diana Torres Koss as Seger. They have intriguing approaches to the characters: Koss goes bigger, playing Seger as a Texas-sized hoot and a half. James doesn’t go smaller, exactly; it’s more like she goes sideways, playing Cline not as the object of Seger’s adoring gaze, or even as a musical icon, but as a real person—a touch shy and awkward off-stage, passionate onstage, and charming at all times. It’s the kind of person Cline must have indeed been to strike up this friendship with the real Seger, and the pair are fun to watch together.
The very staging of this production says volumes about the intentions of director Shaun Carroll. Seger’s kitchen is part of the Always set, as it’s where many of the plot points take place—it’s where she first hears Cline on the radio, for instance, and where one of their most important interactions takes place (not to mention the spot from where she often hounds the local country DJ to play Cline’s records). So the tendency would be to put the kitchen near or perhaps even at center stage, and for Seger to deliver most if not all of her stories about Cline from there. In the production I saw before, the stage from which Cline delivers the songs that punctuate Seger’s stories was stage left, and the area would be lit each time Cline would appear.
But in this production, Seger’s kitchen is far to the side of the stage, and it cannot contain Koss. She struts back and forth in front of the audience, speaking directly to us and delivering quite a bit of physical comedy. The “stage on the stage” from which James sings is set back a little, but smack in the center, which makes far more sense to me. The fantastic backing band (including local legend Patti Maxine on the lap steel) has plenty of room to spread out, and James treats the audience as if we are the crowd watching Cline’s show, breaking a fourth wall that in the case of this musical is really just unnecessary artifice anyway. The whole thing is incredibly interactive, with some members of the Colligan Theater audience seated at tables on the stage, blurring the line between musical performance and performance of a musical even further.
So is there any downside to staging Always as a nonstop good time? There’s definitely some trade-off, as it doesn’t have the same emotional weight as the production I saw before. But as a fan of Cline’s music (and that is one thing Always does not skimp on, no matter how you play it—there are 27 of her songs packed into the show), I much prefer it like this. The promise of this play is in its title, which is how Cline signed her letters to Seger: an intimate look into the friendship between two women, with the goal of gaining some insight into the human being behind the legend of Patsy Cline. To highlight their warmth and vivaciousness as this production does, to explore the excitement that they both felt about the power of the music, makes these characters something so much more relatable and real than two doomed figures waiting for the plane to go down.
INFO: ‘Always … Patsy Cline’ runs through Dec. 3 at the Colligan Theater at the Tannery Arts Center, 1010 River St. in Santa Cruz. Performances are Wednesdays through Sundays, $42/$48. For tickets or more information, go to jeweltheatre.net.