It's all about the music. In the '50s, Patsy Cline became the first major crossover success from country to popular music. She died at age 31 in a plane crash in 1963, but her voice, that unmistakable voice, lives on. Her songs are still played, her recordings still sold.
It is Patsy Cline's music — rather than facts about her life and career — that is the subject of "A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline," which opened Friday at Oregon Cabaret Theatre. It stars Kymberli Colbourne, who sounds uncannily like Cline.
Written by Dean Regan with Cline's widower, Charlie Dick, listed as production adviser, and directed by OCT Artistic Director Jim Giancarlo, "A Closer Walk" is an unabashed tribute to Cline's music. The show is at its best when Colbourne is singing — the production features 19 of Cline's hit songs.
They are all there, from the rockin' country tune "Come On In (and Make Yourself at Home)" to Cline standards such as "I Fall to Pieces," "She's Got You," "Sweet Dreams" and "Back in Baby's Arms." In between, we get Texas swing from Bob Wills' "Faded Love", twangy country in Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" and even a bit of Irving Berlin in "Always." While "Walkin' After Midnight" was Cline's first big hit, she is probably best known for her recording of Willie Nelson's "Crazy," the big finale to this show.
The songs are bracketed by other stage business, a hillbilly Virginia disc jockey called Little Big Man, a corny Grand Ole Opry comic, a weary Las Vegas lounge comic and an equally corny Carnegie Hall opening comedy act (all played by an engaging Christopher Bange) and snappy renditions of 1950s singing commercials. These bits only serve to give the Patsy Cline character time to change costume, and Bange does a credible job with his "gee golly" disc jockey and comedy routines.
There are some missteps. Inexplicably, Cline's opening act at Carnegie Hall is a comic performing a mournful version of "Jimmy Crack Corn," a song dating to 19th century blackface minstrel shows. Why that song and that comedy act would be the opener for the sleek Patsy Cline at the pinnacle of her career is puzzling. As it is, the song and the act are uncomfortably out of place.
Cline started her career singing to pedal guitar and honky-tonk piano, and this is reflected in the music of the show's first act. After 1957, when the already-established country star was "discovered" by Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts on national television, Cline's recorded music was backed by dramatic orchestrations and lush strings.
For the OCT production, Colbourne is accompanied by a strong, onstage three-piece band. Music director John Taylor is the keyboardist, with Tom Freeman on drums and Fred Epping on guitar and pedal steel. The band and stage manager Kathleen Mahoney provide backup vocals as well. The country sound works best with Cline's earlier hits but doesn't reflect the full, lush flavor of Cline's pop music success.
OCT costume designer Kerri Lea Robbins has a lot of fun with all of Cline's costume looks in this show. Early in Cline's career, she was noted for her fringed cowgirl outfits, made by her mother and copied from costumes on the Grand Ole Opry. The staff on the Arthur Godfrey show put her in a cocktail dress, and thereafter Cline wore a more sophisticated wardrobe.
Robbins also does a fine job with Bange's cornpone comic overalls and Las Vegas lounge lizard looks and provides accompanying and appropriate changes for the band. One quibble: A disc jockey from the Shenandoah Piedmont region of Virginia in the early 1960s wouldn't have worn a Stetson hat.
Craig Hudson's set is clean and straightforward, the better to set off Colbourne and the musicians. Sound design is ably provided by Tom Freeman.
All in all, "A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline" is mostly a concert performance of Cline's music. It comes off as a wonderfully nostalgic look at a music legend, lushly presented through Colbourne's powerful voice. That's what fills the theater and haunts long after the show is over.
Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at email@example.com.