Locals may remember Annie Marsh’s powerhouse vocals from the numerous musicals she did in Wilmington as a teen. Or maybe they tuned in when she was on “The Voice” in 2014 and made it in front of the judges during blind auditions. Now a college student at Boston’s Berklee School of Music—after transferring from New York’s Pace Performing Arts—Marsh will return to her hometown stage at Thalian Hall to bring to life one of the world’s most beloved stars in the jukebox musical “Always, Patsy Cline.”
The story follows the friendship between the country star and fan Louise Segar, who becomes a pen pal and confidant to Cline. Based on a true story, and from an excerpt of Cline’s biography, “Honky Tonk Angel,” the plot arc is woven through their letters to each other. Returning to play Segar is Barbara Weetman, who knows the role well after three performances.
“There are other gifted actors who can do that role, but Barb combines Louise’s humor, candor, storytelling and emotion with such a subtlety and depth that everyone in the theater leaves wanting to write Louise their own letters,” director Justin Smith says. “And Annie has such a gift (not unlike Patsy); I felt like I needed to seize this opportunity to get her in this role before it was too late.”
It will be Smith’s third time producing and directing “Always, Patsy Cline”; he did it first when he led the helm at City Stage and thereafter hosted it in Thalian’s ballroom. He credits his experience as giving him the right tools to take it to the larger Thalian stage with Opera House Theatre Company.
“We have a few more bells and whistles in this space, and having a deep understanding of the production helps with that,” he assures. “But, really, I love the music and the subject matter. [Patsy Cline] was fascinating and accomplished so much in a short period. With the show being based on actual letters, It really gives you an idea of what a humble person this mega star was.”
Because of Marsh’s many similarities to Cline, it seemed a natural fit to call her back to town, according to Smith. At 22, Marsh is the same age as Patsy was when the ‘50s-‘60s singer began her ascent into stardom. “Annie is an old soul and Patsy had to have been to accomplish so much before she died at age 30,” Smith notes.
Marsh’s research of the role has come with hours of poring through interviews and watching videos in order to mimic Cline’s inflections and vibrato. She likens the star’s voice to insane capabilities.
“She was open-throated and almost operatic,” Marsh says. “She could have been a jazz singer, opera singer or gospel singer if she wanted.”
From the low notes she nailed on “Crazy” and “Fall to Pieces,” to the flat at the end of
“Lovesick Blues,” Marsh has been more than impressed by Cline’s technique, including yodels, growls and riffs she utilized early in her career.
“I don’t honestly know what she couldn’t sing,” Marsh says. “As she got more mature and older, she became more musically simple and concentrated more on telling the story.”
The vulnerability emoted from the storytelling is what Marsh connects with most. She praises Cline’s real-life thick skin and her bleeding open heart on stage. “She was a tough woman that could throw back beers with the guys at the bar, then walk on stage and be so vulnerable through her music she would make everyone in the room cry,” Marsh tells. “[That] is a hard combo to come by but she had it. I love being able to play a person who is like that because I relate to her. I consider myself a super vulnerable person while equally having a strong sense of self.”
Cline’s transparent honesty is perhaps what also made her fans flock to her easily. Marsh reached out to a Cline fanatic, who also happens to be a friend, Justin Peterson, to find out the attraction. Peterson claims his own music career started because of Cline. “Listening to him talk about her and explain why she has touched his life has really helped me get to the core of why and how she was deeply loved and admired by so many,” Marsh says. “Listening to different people share how Patsy has personally affected their lives has been the best research of all.”
One of such is band leader Adrian Varnam (fiddle/acoustic guitar), who has done the production four times already. He will steer Luís Barragán (piano), Hugh Mallard (drums), Brian Westbrook (bass), Bob Russell (pedal steel), and Ted Crenshaw (electric guitar) through 28 songs.
“Patsy Cline is on the Mount Rushmore of country music,” Varnam says, “and for someone who loves Americana like I do, getting to perform her music for today’s audience is a joy. Her songs and voice are both woven into the fabric of our culture, and revisiting and performing them bring feelings of nostalgia and comfort. For this production, they couldn’t have cast a more talented singer to play Patsy than Annie. She gives so much to this iconic role.”
Marsh’s favorite tune in the show isn’t even among Cline’s greatest hits. She loves the scene in Louise’s apartment, right before bedtime, when Cline sings a gospel tune, “Just a Closer Walk With Thee.”
“She is completely alone, singing to herself verses performing for an audience at a show or radio station,” Marsh describes. “The audience gets to experience her having an intimate conversation with God through music. It is such a special moment and I love singing that song so much. It is so soulful and honest.”