“Always…Patsy Cline” is a versatile piece. Seen five times in as many seasons, a production can go in several directions from a concert with interludes to an intimate look at a unique relationship, or, as is happening through September 7 at New Hope’s Bucks County Playhouse, a vehicle for a couple of actresses to let loose with their personal arsenal of surefire talents.
David Galligan’s staging of “Always” features a pair of star turns that give Carter Calvert, as the ill-starred country great, and Sally Struthers, as a fan who becomes a fast friend, multiple chances at bravura neither fails to ace.
Happily, while Calvert and Struthers are pulling out all stops, the story of a major star and Houston housewife forming a bond comes through. Comedy is emphasized over drama, realism, and even music in this production, yet key moments showing how kinship starts and flourishes make their mark.
Struthers, who is having and providing a ball with a cavalcade of bits, tics, antics, and shtick, deftly, and without changing the character she establishes, finds the right emotional notes in late, more serious scenes to provoke earned tears when her character hears of her friend’s death and reveals how strong and constant their connection was.
A Vegasy, show biz version of “Always … Patsy Cline,” built to amuse more than involve or move, ultimately generates sentiment enough to add warmth to what is solidly pitched as a romp with musical benefits.
Sally Struthers is a comic wonder. Experience, comic intuition, and knowing her audience have given Struthers the opportunity to collect a seemingly endless panoply of routines and expressions she can trot out to fit any comic occasion, and in “Always … Patsy Cline,” she doesn’t miss a single chance to display her laugh-assuring wares.
When her character, Louise, makes a testy or important point, Struthers scrunches up her right cheek and flutters her eye to show her anger or seriousness. When she demonstrates how Louise “tools” around Houston in the pink and black Pontiac she calls her “sexy dude,” Struthers executes a classic burlesque strut, drum licks and all, across the BCP stage. When Louise wants to peek at something surreptitiously, Struthers squints from behind a beer bottle.
The actress’s repertoire covers every situation. The surprise is how physical Struthers gets. A 50-year career testifies she can do anything with a line reading, but who knew she could let fly with a fancy two-step, skitter around the stage as in a religious rapture, bend, jump, and do everything but a full split in service to her performance?
All of this activity borders on bombast, but Struthers is a pro and keeps her antics on the right side of delightful. You’re watching perfectly executed elemental comedy in action, and that excuses any seeming trespass.
Yet, there are times I wished director Galligan would have controlled Struthers. Especially in a scene in which Patsy asks Louise to monitor a band to maintain correct tempo during Patsy’s cover of Hank Williams’ “Your Cheating Heart.” Struthers is hilarious, but Patsy singing is a staple of the show, and Louise’s talking through a ballad or demanding the drumsticks and hitting a cymbal, while getting a laugh, undermine what Ted Swindley’s play wants to reveal.
Swindley should not be forgotten. He crafted a piece that allows for varying renditions, and he did a particularly fine job in hitting the biographical points of Cline’s personal life and rise to fame without becoming as pedantic or mawkish as most writers of such material do. He is also skillful at framing the affinity of Patsy and Louise, keeping the script warm and honest and never treading into sentimental overkill.
And Carter Calvert cannot be forgotten. As an actress, Calvert registers as authentic from her entrance at Patsy. As a singer, she grew into the part as the opening night performance proceeded.
In early numbers, especially in signature tunes such as “Walkin’ After Midnight,” and “I Fall to Pieces,” the impression was Calvert was more intent on getting down Cline’s pitch and phrasing than projecting the feeling of the song.
More performances are certain to fix that because in later numbers, Calvert beautifully married Cline’s sound, as you’d expect from an alumna of “Forbidden Broadway,” with the intimacy and immediacy that made her great. Calvert’s rendition of “Crazy,” perhaps the most famous from Cline’s repertory, passed all tests, and her performance of “You Belong to Me,” “Faded Love,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “If You’ve Got Leaving on Your Mind” were as arresting as up tunes and yodeling numbers such as “Blue Moon of Kentucky” were elating. In general, Calvert is excellent both musically and dramatically.
Designers Jeff Perri and Michael Gilliam provide realistic sets and deft lighting, but Philip G. Allen on sound deserves special kudos for keeping levels natural and not blasting mikes like so many of his brethren do.
Always…Patsy Cline, Bucks County Playhouse, 70 South Main Street, New Hope, Pennsylvania. Through September 7. Tuesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m. , Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m. and 2 p.m. , and Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday, 2 p.m. $65 to $85, 215-862-2121 or www.bcptheater.org.