Opera House Theatre Company shifts gears from the big ensemble musical of “Mamma Mia!”—which opened the new year—to the small-cast jukebox revue of “Always… Patsy Cline.” Written by Ted Swindley, the show is performed by Annie Tracy Marsh as Cline, and is interspersed with reminisces of Louise Seger, played by Barbara Weetman. In real life Seger was a devoted fan who corresponded with Cline through letters, after meeting her at a show in Houston. Seger’s interviews with Cline’s biographer, Ellis Nassour, for “Honky Tonk Angel” comprise the show’s narrative arc. Seger and Cline became friends until Cline’s death in a plane crash at the young age of 30.
Annie Tracy Marsh grew up on the main stage of Thalian Hall. She returns after several years studying in New York and now Boston to bring us her version of Patsy Cline. She’s got the look, she’s got the attitude, she’s got stage presence, and she’s got a beautiful voice.
“It is sort of like ‘The Sound of Music,’” I expressed to my date. “Everyone goes to see it, wanting to hear Julie Andrews sing—and no one sings like Julie Andrews.”
Just the same, no one sounds like Patsy Cline—and that’s the point. The goose-bump-raising voice that can drag your heart through the shredder on the way through two low octaves of the keyboard is singular. But Marsh comes close and the audience loves her for it—adores her, even, and wants more and more of her.
Just to be clear about the undertaking we are discussing here: The entire show is pretty much Marsh singing through 28 songs, back to back. She runs off stage to change clothes while Weetman’s Seger entertains the audience and fills in the story about their connection and thus Cline’s megastar. But Marsh delivers a marathon of solos. She gives so much of herself on stage and still finds more to draw upon as the show progresses.
Music directors Lorene Walsh and Adrian Varnum have assembled a great live band, The Bodacious Bobcats, to play the sound track live onstage. So we open at The Grand Ole Opry with two of Cline’s hits and favorites, “Walking After Midnight” and “Back in Baby’s Arms.” Still, Cline’s vast catalog yields so many memorable songs, yet the latter are my two favorites. What we, the audience, learn instantly is Marsh understands how to tell a story with song and to work the crowd. On top of it all, together, she and the band create something magical. The Bobcats are on point, too: Luis Barragan (piano), Bob Russell (pedal steel guitar), Ted Crenshak (lead guitar), Brian Westbrook (bass), Adrian Varnum (fiddle), and Hugh Mallard (drums) work cohesively and seamlessly as a third character in the unfolding story on stage.
Barbara Weetman—who also lived here and performed locally for years—defies description. She is elegant, sexy, beautiful, smart, capable, confident and an incredibly gifted comedienne. With the part of Louise Seger, she is tasked with a nearly impossible role: to follow Marsh’s singing (who would want to be on stage after that?), keep the audience entertained and communicate the story. Few would succeed at it, but, frankly, I can’t imagine anyone other than Weetman pulling it off. And she’s had practice, considering it’s her third time in the role. It demands her to become a gifted storyteller, cheerleader and a bit of the stage jester. When she “conducts” the band for Patsy during the Esquire Ballroom appearance, it is side-splitting funny and possibly only eclipsed by her description of the Radio DJ Hal Harris (“He looked like death on a cracker!”).
Perhaps what I like best about Weetman’s rendition of Seger is how aware she is of the audience’s perceptions of her (“Well, we can’t all be hair dressers, now can we?”). Weetman is clear of making fun of Seger—or women who haven’t had the same privileges of education and opportunities that Weetman has. It is rather she pours herself into making Seger an unapologetically full person, who knows how others judge her but is determined to grab life by the balls anyway, judgement be damned.
“Always… Patsy Cline” is an audience pleaser. Anyone not having fun at the show must be dead. Cline recorded and performed a lot in her short career, and the show tries to get a good representation of work into the script. Obviously “Crazy” and “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” are both included, but so are other hits, like “Shake Rattle and Roll” and the gospel tune “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.” Marsh takes the audience on a wild ride, from the vocally challenging “Lovesick Blues” and “I Fall to Pieces.” She steered the audience’s sways and singalongs as well.
Marsh must be exhausted by the end of the evening—she gives so much to this role. And it’s clear folks are excited about it, as the house (500 seats in Thalian Hall) was packed on opening night. It is great to see these two women back home performing again—and even more wonderful to see so many people turn out to share their work.