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THEATER REVIEW

Production of Patsy Cline musical a savvy, entertaining choice for Columbia's Town Theatre

Keep Singing

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Town Theatre's production of "Always...Patsy Cline" wraps up this week. Provided/Chuck Crumbo

There’s no way to experience a Patsy Cline concert live. The influential country singer, who enjoyed mainstream success with crossover pop hits, died in a 1963 plane crash at age 30. Town Theatre has the next best thing, however: a revival of playwright Ted Swindley’s musical tribute to the legendary vocalist, “Always...Patsy Cline.”

Town has found box office success with at least five previous iterations of this jukebox musical. Its enduring audience appeal combined with its minimal production demands (a cast of two, a band of five and a stage on which to perform) make it a savvy programming choice as the theater world begins to climb out of its COVID-19 shutdown. A recent performance offered socially distanced seating, with groupings of two, three and four separated from other audience members by empty seats. Some upcoming performances, however, will be offered at full capacity.

Directed by Allison McNeely, the musical is not so much a celebrity biography as a remembrance of a chance encounter with the singer (Shannon Willis Scruggs) as told by avid fan Louise Segar (Kathy Hartzog). While Hartzog has distinguished herself in serious roles, such as the title characters of “Driving Miss Daisy” and “Hello, Dolly!,” her portrayal of Louise on opening weekend was a welcome return to the feisty, irascible, down-home brassy broads she has so often played locally over the last three decades. Louise came across as a good ol’ working class gal from Texas, reminiscent of classic television characters such as Flo (“Alice”) Arlene (“True Blood”) and Vicky Lawrence’s Mama from “The Carol Burnett Show.”

Hartzog is a generation older than Scruggs, but the pairing worked, not just because the duo’s chemistry has developed through appearances in all previous incarnations of the show, but also because the show is a memory play, and Hartzog’s genial, chatty manner registered like gossip over coffee with a neighbor, highlighted by memories of the night that she met her idol.

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For country music purists, I might note that much of Louise’s narration had little to do with Cline’s life, and the humor was awfully broad, so be forewarned. Hartzog certainly could have dialed down the intensity of her characterization and the hokiness of the homespun humor by a notch or two, but I doubt the show would have been nearly as fun if she had.

As Cline, Scruggs used every vocal trick at her disposal, delving deeply into her lower register to capably recreate Cline’s contralto voice — the lowest female singing part — as she ran through some 26 of the singer’s hits over two acts and some 10 costume changes. I was especially struck by the strength and richness with which she sustained some of the score’s lowest notes.

In filmed television appearances, Cline hugged the microphone while the camera focused on her face, whereas Scruggs appeared ready to command the entire house from the moment she confidently and assertively strode onto stage, keeping time with the sway of her body, the tap of a foot, or by rhythmically shifting her weight from one leg to the other.

All the hits were there, including “Back in Baby’s Arms,” “Walking After Midnight,” “Sweet Dreams” and “I Fall to Pieces.” Scruggs employed less vocal twang than Cline did for some of her earlier work, such as “Honky Tonk Merry Go Round,” opting for the more familiar sound from crossover hits like the jazz-influenced “Crazy.” The diversity of Cline’s repertoire could be seen as Scruggs sang her heart out in numbers such as the rockabilly stomper “Lovesick Blues” and the amusing “Stupid Cupid,” originally a novelty pop ballad written for Connie Francis by Neil Sedaka.

This last song provided Hartzog a chance to shake her tailfeathers, as it were, appearing to improvise a hilarious mashup from dances such as the Twist, the Shimmy and the Funky Chicken, as Louise grooved to her idol’s dynamic performance at a local honky tonk.

In later scenes, Scruggs revealed Cline’s human side, singing softer songs such as “If I Could See the World” — presented as a lullaby to Louise’s sleeping child — while wearing a housecoat and slippers. While Patsy was the star and Louise the appreciative audience, the pair did have a chance for some pretty harmonies on “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” The accompanying five-piece band, led by Michael Simmons on piano, played superbly, offering appealing backbeats and fills throughout.

The greater one’s fondness for the material, the greater one’s enjoyment will be for the recreation of 60-year-old country music standards. While Cline’s personal life was largely glossed over and alluded to only in passing by Louise’s narration, I left the theater confident that I had experienced the closest thing to an authentic Patsy Cline concert in a small venue that I ever will.


“Always...Patsy Cline”

Through May 2. Town Theatre. 1012 Sumter St. $15-$25. towntheatre.com.

Post and Courier Columbia/Free Times arts coverage is supported by a grant from the Knight Foundation Fund at Central Carolina Community Foundation.

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