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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Charms of ‘Always… Patsy Cline’ return in New London

Critic At Large

Wolf River Theatrical Troupe

Wolf River Theatre, July 16, 2021. (Warren Gerds)

NEW LONDON, Wis. (WFRV) – Three sentences tell a whole lot. “I did.” “She was 3 years old.” “She’s been singing Patsy a long time.”

The sentences were a response to a question following the special version of “Always…Patsy Cline” that Wolf River Theatrical Troupe has brought back: “When did she know about her voice?”

In the show, Molly Brown embraces so many colors of the beloved country music star’s voice that an aura of reality fills the air. In ways, that naturalness can’t be beat.

Answering the question as the audience was leaving Friday night’s performance in Wolf River Theatre was the director, Maggie Brown. As Molly Brown’s mother, she knew her daughter had the Patsy Cline voice at age 3.

The current run is their fourth time of presenting “Always…Patsy Cline” at the theater. The most recent time was in 2017, when I wrote this in a review: “If shows could be bottled, this one would be labeled Special Elixir and placed on a prominent shelf.”

What drew me back was a chance to taste again that elixir.

The show is about an enduring personality’s “No. 1 fan.” In this case, Debbie Martin is so enthusiastic and natural that she makes the fan, Louise Seger, seem like the real thing. Everything she does goes hand-in-hand with Molly Brown creating the Patsy Cline illusion.

Putting many pieces of the production together is Maggie Brown, founder of the company and director of many of its productions.

A moment at rehearsal, with Molly Brown, center left, and Debbie Martin, center right. (Company photo)

The story is from real life: Louise has been following Patsy and her hits through the mid-1950s to now, May 29, 1961. Louise is telling the story. Patsy has come to Houston by herself on tour. At the venue, Louise strikes up a friendship with Patsy. Patsy ends up at Louise’s house for late-night bacon and eggs and sharing of secrets. The friendship lasts beyond the night.

The show is a showcase of 27 songs of Patsy that are built around that story.

A plus is the music of varied county styles is live, provided onstage by six musicians and three background vocalists.

Louise’s kitchen is important. Patsy is seen appearing at the Grand Ole Opry, on TV and the Esquire Ballroom in Houston, plus other places.

Importantly, the show has Patsy as a clothes horse. Molly Brown comes out in a series of gowns and dress wear and flashy outfits (and a robe at Louise’s house) as Patsy would wear in a concert. The production is something of a ’50s-’60s fashion show.

Molly Brown moves comfortably in the Patsy Cline vocal range. There’s a fullness, the lilt, the timbre, the technique, the tricks. Patsy Cline didn’t sing in a straight line. Molly Brown loves to go a-wandering as her, doing justice to the distinctive voice that can be picked out (still) in the crowd of country music voices. Some songs come off better than others, but the flavor of most of the 27 songs (that’s a lot) is there.

Extremely important in this production, Debbie Martin SOARS as fantastic fan Louise. Debbie Martin is a live wire as she kids in character – and with the audience, ad libbing some bits. She has a Southern accent from having lived in West Virginia, which is perfect for her character. She’s energetic, limber, radiantly expressive, spontaneous and eager. Her Louise Seger is as good as you could ask for in a production of “Always… Patsy Cline.”

The stage is made up as Louise’s kitchen and bits and pieces from the story, notably a table and some of the look of the Esquire Ballroom. The theater includes album covers and posters for Schlitz beer, which has a role in the story and with the band. Projections on a screen at the back of the stage help place times and places in Patsy’s life.

The audience factors into the show. Favorite songs spark applause. Sometimes, clap-alongs happen. Friday, the performance achieved what fine theater does – pin-drop silence in the audience as the story turns dramatic.

Molly Brown singing Patsy a long time, Debbie Martin channeling Patsy’s No. 1 fan and Patsy Cline songs being Patsy Cline songs add up to wonderful.

***

Creative: Author – Ted Swindley; director/producer – Margie Brown; set design and décor – Margie Brown; props – Margie Brown and cast; costumes – Linda McFaul, Mary Ellen Fields, Margie Brown, cast; make-up – cast; dresser – Linda McFaul, Blair Schulz; lighting and sound design – Chris Berberich; lighting and sound operators – Chris Berberich, Tim Schulz, Briley Schulz

Cast: 

Patsy Cline – Molly Brown

Louise Seger – Debbie Martin

Performers in The Bodacious Bobcats: Polly Godel, piano; Barb Bricco, guitar; Derek Schulz, guitar; Tiffany Schulz, bass guitar; Chayton Behnke, steel guitar; Paul Nieto, drums; Ben Stillwell, Mathew Zeichert, Josh Barnett, background vocals

Running time: Two hours, 20 minutes

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. July 17, 22-24

Info: wrtt.org

***

Songs

Act I

“Honky Tonk Merry Go-Round”

“Back in Baby’s Arms”

“Anytime”

“Walkin’ After Midnight”

“I Fall to Pieces”

“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”

“Come on In (and Sit Right Down)”

“Your Cheatin’ Heart”

“Stupid Cupid”

“You Belong to Me”

“San Antonio Rose”

“Lovesick Blues”

Act II

“Sweet Dreams”

“She’s Got You”

“Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray”

“Crazy”

“Seven Lonely Days”

“If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child)”

“Just a Closer Walk”

“Blue Moon of Kentucky”

“Gotta Lotta Rhythm”

“Shake Rattle and Roll”

“Faded Love”

“How Great Thou Art”

“True Love”

“If You’ve Got Leavin’ on Your Mind’

“Bill Bailey”

***

NEXT: “War of the Worlds: A Live Radio Drama” by Howard W. Koch based on the novel by H.G. Wells, Oct. 14-16, 21-23.

THE VENUE: Wolf River Theatre, 304 St. Johns Place in downtown New London, is home to Wolf River Theatrical Troupe performances. The building was built as a church in 1906 and most previously was used as Real Opportunities Outreach following its years as Christian Cornerstone Church. The exterior is red brick, with crosses atop the roof and on a side entryway. The rectangular auditorium seats 80 on moveable chairs. The former altar serves as the stage, with an adorned wooden beam and two columns with Corinthian capitals on each side establishing the stage front. The beam holds theatrical lighting fixtures. High above on the walls, wooden shutters cover window spaces. The performance space is unique among theaters in the region. It is especially deep. The stage is about 30 feet wide and at least 35 feet deep. To the left of the stage is the entrance to rest rooms. In the back of the house are the box office and a small area for concessions and displays, including a newspaper clipping from 1980 when the building was an Episcopal church.

***

Personal story: The printed program mentions Patsy Cline being a regular on the TV show of Jimmy Dean in the 1950s, and this pops to mind: It’s between shows at the WBAY Auditorium, and I’ve just finished an interview with Jimmy Dean aboard his tour bus parked next to the auditorium. He talks about his string of hits and some frustration of not getting much recognition despite them. (Dean would be recognized by the Country Music Hall of Fame after his death). After the interview, I can barely step down from his bus because of pain. I’d thrown my back out. I must have looked pitiful because Dean seemed shocked and offered a massage to help me out of my misery. I declined and staggered off. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Jimmy Dean sausage brand. Same person. Every time such a sausage comes my way by ad or on my plate, I smile inside. He put on a good show, too.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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