Any show centered around iconic country music star Patsy Cline is bound to pick up when famous tunes like “I Fall to Pieces,” “Walkin’ After Midnight,” and “Crazy” are cued by their equally familiar intros.
Music definitely provides a boost in Bristol Riverside Theater’s production of “A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline.” Dean Regan’s book is one big buffer between musical numbers and makes you hanker for some singing, whether by Jessica Wagner as Patsy or four well-mated lads who play her back-up group, the Jordanaires.
The exhilaratingly brilliant Miss Wagner makes the anticipation all the greater. For the second time in three seasons, she has roared into Bristol, aided by deft direction by Susan D. Atkinson, to channel Patsy in a way that renders the late star a living, breathing entity.
Wagner is no mere impersonator of Cline or mimic of her personal style. Off stage you see the differences in Wagner’s bone structure from Cline’s. She has a quieter, shyer personality and seems younger than Cline, even though Patsy lived only to age 30. So Wagner, playing her between 1947 and 1963, is in the right range. Put a series of accurately chosen wigs on her head, wigs that show Patsy’s progression through her hair, contour the lower jaw slightly, and add Linda B. Stockton’s assortment of sleek 1960s cocktail dresses, and voila Patsy Cline is standing right before your eyes.
The resemblance isn’t all that’s uncanny. Wagner’s physicality and tailoring set the mood and start the image seeming like a magical reincarnation. The voice, and more importantly, the knowing inflections and emotional catches, a Patsy trademark that added depth and, when appropriate, pathos to her music, are what lull you into thinking you’re seeing Miss Cline in the flesh.
Wagner can do all that Patsy could vocally. She finds the hurt in “She’s Got You” that elevates it from a one-idea complaint to something that tears at the singer’s heart. She invites you to share the irony in Willie Nelson’s pop masterpiece, “Crazy.” She conveys the longing in what is perhaps Patsy’s most complicated number, “Sweet Dreams.” She reveals the faith inherent in what turned out to be Patsy’s final recording, the Gospel tune “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”
Then, between moving you with stories of love lost, unrequited, or unnoticed, she can perform vocal pyrotechnics by going through the yodeling swirls of “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” expressing the joy in “Back in Baby’s Arms” (which I’ve been humming throughout the writing of this review), and joyfully doing the outright wails of fast, lively numbers that rely on sheer exuberance.
Concisely put, Jessica Wagner is a wonder. And not just as Patsy Cline. She’s shown her mettle in other Bristol shows, most notably last season’s “Rumors.”
Her radiance is especially welcome in “A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline,” because unlike Ted Swindley’s “Always…Patsy Cline,” the popularity and acclaim for which persuaded Bristol founding director Atkinson and company artistic director Keith Baker to seek another Cline retrospective for Wagner, the textual territory between songs is slow slogging.
“Always” chronicled a relationship Patsy formed with a Texas woman and featured a lot of warm, funny give-and-take that allowed Wager, as Cline, to create a fuller character and have byplay with an entertaining co-star, the wonderful Jo Twiss. “A Closer Walk” depicts a day, March 5, 1963, the day Miss Cline is killed in a 7 p.m. plane crash. It is also the day that Patsy’s hometown radio station, WINC, is coincidentally doing an all-day tribute to her.
Give the consistently fine actor Danny Vaccaro bushels of credit. As a WINC deejay, Little Big Man, and in various character turns, he tries with now expected skill to keep “A Closer Walk” lively between Wagner’s costume and wig changes. Atkinson helps with some comic touches, such as a sound effect of crashing cookware, but in spite of pulling out director’s tricks and Vaccaro’s valiant and well-done effort, Regan’s book doesn’t provide better than mundane or predictable material to keep his opus flowing. You give Vaccaro, the guys playing the Jordanaires, Neil Nemetz and the guys in the band lots of admiration, but neither they nor Atkinson can cover the dry spots until Wagner reappears.
And, to repeat, Vaccaro tries. Don’t blame him or downgrade his showmanship as he tries to make hay from ancient straw. Regan bridges some gaps by having Vaccaro play a Grampa Jones type of comic in overalls unbuttoned on one side and a slew of one-liners. While I found some of the gags funny, even Regan, via Vaccaro, admits their date from prehistoric times and may, therefore, be too corny and unfashionably sexist, to earn 21st-century applause.
So be prepared to sit through unpreventable moments of dullness when words take precedence over music. Matters improve when musicians Nemetz, Charlie Gilbert, Robert Gargiullo, Mark Cristofaro, and Nero Catalano vamp country classics and become enjoyable when singers Nate Golden, Jared Calhoun, Sean C. White, and Christopher J. Perugini are displaying their impressive close harmonies as The Jordanaires. Regan missed a boat by not giving Golden and cohorts more to do. Music would go so much further than 1963 news headlines and the country comic’s cornball act to keep “A Closer Walk” ambling more easily and enjoyably.
A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Through Sunday, October 16. $40 to $50. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.