DE PERE, Wis. - Play-by-Play Theatre’s production of “Always…Patsy Cline” starts with the voice. Country singer Patsy Cline had a distinctive voice – clear, strong, a bit of a hitch in some notes and a wide range around a general theme of heartache. Starring as Patsy Cline, Kelsey Denae snugly fits into that voice and pulls the listener’s ear into it song after song in this 25-song show.
Performances continue through Saturday, Dec. 5, in St. Norbert College’s Webb Theatre, a good space for this production.
“Always…Patsy Cline” is story show. It tells about a slice of time when a fan and Cline shared each other’s heart and soul, starting with the fascinating way in which they met. Cline came to Houston by herself to perform in a barn-like ballroom, and Louise Seger came to the show and connected with her to the point of inviting Cline home for bacon and eggs that turned into soul sharing. The two exchanged addresses, thus letters came to Seger that closed with, “Love, Always, Patsy Cline.” The letters from Cline started May 29, 1961, and ended around the time of her death in an airplane crash March 5, 1963. As the world turns, that’s not a long period, but it is enough to inspire this loving appreciation of a show.
In the show, Cline doesn’t speak much. Details about her are told through the songs she sings and through Seger.
Seger is a character in herself: A fan who can catch a star shooting past has got to be something else. Seger was and is by way of Mary Ehlinger. Seger is a lived-in personage – single mother of two, outspoken, friendly and living the life of a country music lyric about getting by. Ehlinger not only captures those kernels, she makes Seger her own by improvising bits to engage the audience. Ehlinger employs the space of the theater – the audience surrounds the stage on three sides and is close in – to fire up a singalong, to entice a front-row guy to dance, to chat and/or comment. Sample: There’s a reference to cowboys in the show, and Ehlinger adds a layer to it by saying, “Gotta love cowboys, unless you’re in Green Bay.” Now, to break character could be forbidden, except that it’s okay with the director. Ehlinger is the director.
Side trip: Ehlinger is one of the founders of the independent Play-by-Play Theatre. She and Denae have worked together previously. Both are “townies,” Ehlinger a product of St. Norbert College, Denae a product of Ashwaubenon High School. Both are members of Equity, the actors’ union (an important entity in theater). Ehlinger has been musical director for more than 60 productions at the popular Fireside Theatre in Fort Atkinson, and Denae has performed there along her path in professional theater.
The experience of this production starts with the singing of Christmas carols by a young, costumed trio in the lobby beforehand. The trio, The Merry Melodies, also opens the show singing “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” at the WSM Radio microphone at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. Next up at that microphone is Cline to start the main story going by pouring forth a sweet, achy voice.
Balancing the sound of Cline/Denae’s singing with a live, five-piece band is a challenge. Denae wears a wireless headset for amplification and balance. Some of Cline’s songs start softly and end strongly. On opening night Tuesday, some songs opened with Denae’s singing lost in the thick of the band’s sound and ended with her strong voice out front in luster. As the performance went on, this was no longer the case.
The story of “Always…Patsy Cline” is also somewhat of clothing. Cline/Denae is a clothes horse. As scenes change, so does what she wears. There must be a mad race backstage as Denae flings off a cowgirl outfit to toss on the next costume and come out singing like a lark at the drop of a hat. Act II starts with Denae in purple hourglass gown with silver heels (that are barely seen as she rushes off for her next change).
Many nice moments emerge in the story as it ranges from such places as The Empire Ballroom in Houston (represented by a barn-like frame structure with six Patsy Cline show posters tacked up in various places), the Grand Ole Opry stage and Seger’s kitchen. Cline sings to Seger’s son, thinking of her own child. Cline reflects on a faded relationship at Seger’s kitchen table (with Denae unleashing a long note big on color). Cline and Seger share a tune – and fun and laughs.
This is a fine, heart-filled production. And… you wanna hear a voice? Denae has got a voice.
Creative: Playwright – Ted Swindley; director – Mary Ehlinger; scenic coordinator – Corey Pinchart; costume supervisor – Mark Silverberg; technical director – Drew Arnold; sound engineer – Chad Bishop; lighting director – Ivy Covaciu; dresser/ASM – Michelle Oren; web and social media manager – Carolyn Silverberg
Cast: Patsy Cline – Kelsey Denae; Louise Seger – Mary Ehlinger
Band: Amy Wright, piano; Jerry Pansier, pedal steel guitar; Matt Hayes, guitar; Anthony Pesavanto, bass; Parker Drew, drums
“Honky Tonk Merry Go-Round”
“Back in Baby’s Arms”
“Walkin’ After Midnight”
“I Fall to Pieces”
“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”
“Come on In”
“Your Cheatin’ Heart”
“You Belong to Me”
“San Antonio Rose”
“She’s Got You”
“Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray”
“Seven Lonely Days”
“If I Could See the World”
“Just a Closer Walk”
“Blue Moon of Kentucky”
“Gotta Lotta Rhythm”
“How Great Thou Art”
Running time: One hour, 55 minutes
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. today, Wednesday, Dec. 2, to Friday, Dec. 4, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 5
THE VENUE: The 184-seat Neil and Mary Webb Memorial Theatre is the smaller of two theaters in St. Norbert College’s Abbot Pennings Hall of Fine Arts. The Webb stage is one-of-a-kind thrust stage, meaning it “thrusts” into the audience space. A traditional proscenium stage has a flat front and usually has curtains. A trust stage rarely uses curtains. People in front rows can practically reach out and touch performers when the performers are on the stage lip. Any seat in the theater is close to the action.
THE PEOPLE: Neil and Mary Webb were husband and wife. Neil Webb was president of St. Norbert College from 1973 to 1983. He earlier headed the St. Norbert psychology department. He left academics for a while before becoming president of Dominican College in California. In December 1987, Neil and Mary Webb died in an airplane crash in California in an act of sabotage by a disgruntled employee. That was shortly before the Hall of Fine Arts was to be remodeled with a small theater in the plans. Neil Webb had a lot of friends in the community and had the reputation, so his name was used to raise funds for the theater.
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