As Jo Twiss — playing a Houston divorcee listening to 1950s-era TV-host Arthur Godfrey’s morning program — hears an unusually expressive voice come from her Muntz television set, she bolts upright before bolting to her living room to see who is singing.
The audience at Bristol Riverside Theater can immediately appreciate Twiss’ excitement because as she bolts, the sound of Jessica Wagner singing “Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round” fills every audible space and mesmerizes the house.
And as if the catch in Wagner’s voice and her impeccable phrasing is not enough to show that the performer understands the essence of fabled country singer Patsy Cline’s talent, Wagner appears in her wig, makeup, and white-fringed red cowgirl dress. And you swear a reincarnated Patsy was standing in front of you.
Twiss is excellent, and as entertaining as a good ol’ Texas gal can be, but Wagner is a shocker. Every time she starts singing, whether it be a Patsy Cline hit or a cover of Jo Stafford’s “You Belong To Me” or Connie Francis’s “Stupid Cupid,” you are impressed as how accurately Wagner captures Cline’s plaintive tone and how engagingly she presents every tune to which she treats the Bristol crowd in “Always . . . Patsy Cline,” a tribute to the Country great, written by Ted Swindley and directed by BRT producing director Susan D. Atkinson through Sunday, February 22.
Wagner is so perfect in her role that 28 songs don’t seem to be enough. You half wish Swindley had just made a song list and let “Always . . . Patsy Cline” be a concert.
Then again, all of Cline’s major favorites are accounted for, and Swindley’s plot, though fairly common and predictable, provides an amiable enough framework for Wagner’s Patsy to break into song frequently enough. Twiss helps by always being a welcome narrator and a character who becomes an early fan of Patsy Cline, constantly requests her records on a local Houston radio station, gets to see and meet Patsy, and becomes a lifelong friend.
Lifelong, for as long as Patsy lived, which was only two years after the singer and Twiss’s Louise became acquainted over a couple of Schlitzes and a panful of bacon and eggs.
Patsy Cline is one of popular entertainment’s sadder figures. Her career was making exponential headway, and she had slews of fans on both country and popular charts, when she was killed with other entertainers in a 1963 airplane crash.
Death cannot keep Patsy’s fans from listening to her to this day. “I Fall to Pieces,” “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Crazy,” and “Sweet Dreams” keep Cline’s light shining. I know Patsy has accompanied me on many a car trip, and I was not alone in being able to mouth many of her hits while Wagner wailed them so brilliantly.
More than nostalgia fuels “Always . . .Patsy Cline.” Swindley gives the actress playing Patsy the chance to sing her songs in their entirety, not in irritatingly interrupted bits like you hear in some retrospective revues, e.g. “Motown: The Musical.” Hearing the full songs gives you appreciation of the music Patsy preferred and of the drama or spirit she brought to her material.
Wagner is as deft with an upbeat tune as she is with a ballad. About the only time she falters is in the lowest registers, such as in the opening notes for “I Fall to Pieces,” but the feeling behind her phrasing is so right you don’t mind. Also, as the song proceeds and takes on some lilt in higher notes, Wagner recovers her usual power and makes the tune a highlight.
Nothing is really beyond this performer’s prodigious ability. While watching Wagner play Cline, I heard tones and saw facial expressions that made me think she would also do well in a revue of Judy Garland’s songs. (Something to consider, Susan Atkinson.)
Wagner deserves such praise, I could heap compliments on her for paragraphs, but it’s also important to note Jo Twiss’s vital contribution to the success of “Always . . . Patsy Cline.”
Swindley’s book requires a storyteller who can keep you interested in her character, a clerk who leads a typical life and develops a strong devotion in Patsy Cline, and a character who will divert you even as you see every plot twist coming.
Twiss does both. She has a favorite neighbor’s way of involving you in Louise’s stories and in her interest in Patsy Cline.
Twiss loads Louise with personality, demonstrating the character’s easy sense of humor, which includes mimicking her boss, boyfriend, a Houston deejay, and others. It’s a warm, congenial comic turn, and Twiss makes the BRT audiences feel at home the same way Louise gives Patsy the chance to forget her celebrity for a while and just talk plainly about marriage, children, and ambitions to another woman.
Ryan Touhey’s band is lively and matches Wagner in energy. Linda B. Stockton has fun dressing Louise in big swirly patterns accented by heavy jewelry, including a huge belt with dangling disks. For Patsy, Stockton alternates between casual clothes and the costumes she wears in concert. The pink suit Patsy wears when she meets Louise, the cowgirl outfit, and a gold lame dress are standouts among a witty wardrobe. Adam Koch’s set is quite versatile. Elizabeth Atkinson’s sound design serves Wagner and Touhey admirably.
Always … Patsy Cline, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, February 22, Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m. $25 to $45. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.