Crazy for Tryin'

Fans of lightweight post-dinner entertainment will appreciate Always . . . Patsy Cline, a slightly better than average amusement that's playing at Theater 4301. The venue, one of Scottsdale Center for the Arts' satellite theaters, isn't particularly easy to find; parking is a small-scale nightmare; and a single, sluggish elevator takes the audience to its seats.

Once inside, it turns out that Always . . . Patsy Cline is one of those annoying hybrids that's not quite a revue and not entirely a book musical -- a show that's half celebrity impersonation, half standup routine. The slender story, which is really just a lot of setups for Patsy Cline songs, is told in flashback by Louise (Becky Saunders), a housewife and mother with a twangy, good-old-girl persona who favors garish cowboy getups -- think Polly Holliday in Alice -- who's based on a real person who befriended Cline (Lisa Fogel) some time in the '50s and with whom she swapped letters throughout Cline's short life. Louise talks to us about how she discovered Cline's music, and how she and the singer became friends of a sort, while Fogel stands in a spotlight and sings all of Cline's best-known songs.

It's a musical that's built to please, if not to inspire. Ted Swindley's script is one of those that relies heavily on dragging the audience into the action with a lot of jokey asides by Saunders and endless local references to KMLE Country and Mr. Lucky's and the like, and one too many demands that we sing along or come down and dance with her -- the lowest in lowbrow comedy bits.

But this isn't Shakespeare, and if there's a problem with Louise's goofy shucking and jiving, it's that it often detracts from Fogel's pleasant vocalizing, as when Louise wanders around the stage while Patsy sings "Your Cheatin' Heart," glaring at the band (which doesn't deserve such cheekiness: Alan J. Plado and his five bandmates sound exactly like a honky-tonk pickup band should) and even performing a drum solo of sorts. If some of the shtick Saunders is handed is just plain unfunny -- pretending to drive across the stage and demanding that the audience yuk it up every time she does; dragging a child who can't dance up on stage to perform a waltz with her -- it's to the actor's credit that she's able to make something warm and occasionally funny out of this sort of nonsense.

By the time Louise shouted, "Hey, Patsy, let's have a sing-along!" it was too late: The audience, who didn't seem to know any of the words to any of the songs, had nonetheless been muttering along with Fogel since the curtain came up. Fogel looks about as much like Patsy Cline as I do, but I found that if I squinted, I could imagine she was Cline. She certainly sounds enough like Cline, approximating the cry in her singing voice; the languid delivery; the tonal quality and phrasing. But as pleasant as it is to hear Fogel sing all of Patsy Cline's hits, the most engaging part of the show is its coda, when Louise reads one of Patsy's letters to the audience -- a letter full of mundane chatter that's more real than anything that's come before it.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela