We’re encroaching on feel-good theater season; when the days get shorter, temperatures drop, and theater companies swap their usual biting fare for something a little more marshmallowy. Firebrand Theatre’s production of Ted Swindley’s “Always … Patsy Cline” has the feel of a wild-card entry in that arena, but it’s friendly, approachable, ageless, and packed to the brim with sugar. What this musical lacks in nutritional value, it easily makes up for with an intimate and twangy quartet, and a pair of tenacious singers who make themselves at home with anyone close to their thrust stage.
“Always … Patsy Cline” is based on a real life letter correspondence kept up for years between Louise Seger, a Texas divorcee, and Patsy Cline (each is played on alternating days by Harmony France and Christina Hall). Louise is the biggest Patsy Cline fan you will ever meet; she gets her first earful while watching Cline’s 1957 national television debut, and develops an obsession strong enough to annoy her boss, kids and the local radio host. When the singer appears in the flesh at a nearby honky tonk, Louise gets up the courage to introduce herself, and it’s the start of a much needed friendship for both.
This production is so endearing, tear-jerking, and assertively friendly, it makes me wish director Brigitte Ditmars had invested a percentage of that energy to tackle the pitfalls that distract from it. The script holds Patsy Cline herself in such saintly reverence, she can feel sketched thinner than a placard on a museum wall. This can can come across as slowness or trepidation sometimes, as we wait for more meaty substance like Louise’s stories, or Patsy’s songs. It’s a sweet narrative shared between two hard-workin’, God-fearin’ white women, and while it’s very impressive they can swap roles at the drop of a hat, it still feels very safe. There’s room for more risk-taking, or a better projected reason why this show is important for Chicago audiences today.
Don’t worry — while the script may be a bit dusty, these performers do their real-life counterparts justice and then some. With twenty-seven songs on her docket, Harmony France was an astounding, high-belting Patsy Cline for the evening. There’s a deep thread of loneliness in her performance, highlighting that Cline had to fend for her pittance while her male counterparts got easy support. As Louise Seger, Christina Hall spends her evening flirting, dancing, and buttering up the audience. If you’re in her sight line, you are fair game for getting entangled in the proceedings of her story. This is her honky tonk; we all just live in it.
Kudos especially to musical director Andra Velis Simon, for assembling her backing quartet with mostly female musicians and musicians of color. It’s a nice touch, given that the script expects an all-male band and has gone to the trouble of giving them all red-neck nicknames. So, if you need holiday fare, but you’re done with Dickens, and your nuts have been cracked, there’s always Patsy Cline.
DICE RATING: d12 — Heckuva Good Show
TEN WORD SUMMARY: This country-fried duo radiates warmth at a leisurely pace.
Show: “Always … Patsy Cline”
Company: Firebrand Theatre
Venue: The Den Theatre (1331 N Milwaukee Ave)