Stages review: 'Always ... Patsy Cline' tugs at the heartstrings

For the News-DemocratJune 18, 2013 

Gather 'round for a toe-tapping, knee-slapping, merry time at "Always ... Patsy Cline," a heart-tugging tribute to the doomed singer, now playing at Stages St. Louis until June 30.

Stepping into a legend's role is one of the more daunting challenges an actor can take on, because people know exactly how the legend sounds and what qualities defined her as a superstar. Ardent fans know how that entertainer made them feel, too.

For fans of country music's No. 1 female singer of all time, rest assured that Jacqueline Petroccia fills Cline's shoes admirably, creating a flesh-and-blood character that went beyond a good karaoke hit parade. She expressively sang one hit after another in a velvety rich contralto, making the music come alive again.

This is her fourth time playing the part, and she isn't merely a copycat. She displays folksy charm and an elegance, too.

The demanding role calls for Petroccia to sing 27 songs, from "Honky Tonk Merry Go Round" to "Bill Bailey," with such hits as "Sweet Dreams," "Crazy" and "Walkin' After Midnight" in the mix, covering a period from 1957 to 1963. They are all flawlessly delivered, aided by an exceptional six-piece band led by musical director Lisa Campbell Albert.

Petroccia honors pitch-perfect Patsy's unmistakable stamp on country-western, gospel and swing. We also get a glimpse of the down-home gal as she rises to stardom, and accepts a new way of life -- a pioneer for women singers.

And that's because of her friendship with fan Louise Seger. They became good pals after meeting at Cline's Houston concert in 1961, hung out after the show, then corresponded until Cline's death in a plane crash. She was 30.

The spare but warm show, written in 1988 by Ted Swindley, is based on Louise's letters. Local legend Zoe Vonder Haar dons a pair of cowboy boots, big hair and Southern accent to embody the fireball Louise, and she is a dynamo onstage.

Imaginatively staged by director Michael Hamilton, Cline appears behind a scrim at first, dressed in her trademark fringed cowgirl outfits hand-sewn by her mother, moving on to the Grand Ole Opry, television appearances and recording studios, as the duds get fancier.

But Patsy isn't just a hologram here, and becomes part of Louise's story in her modest Houston home (impressive set design by James Wolk). When the two women interact, the show grabs hold of everyone's heart and connects with the audience. The pair appear to have a genuine affection for each other onstage, and it comes across that Petroccia and Vonder Haar enjoyed working with each other.

Vonder Haar sure can fire up a crowd. Kissing bald heads, interacting with the audience, stomping her feet and drinking Schlitz from a bottle, she had the crowd at "Howdy!" and then engaged them in a hoedown.

This unpretentious show has a cozy feel, but it's also crisply mounted. The melodies are what drew the audience, but they were moved to multiple standing ovations because of the real emotion.

What: "Always ... Patsy Cline"

When: through June 30

Where: Stages in Kirkwood, at the Robert G. Reim Theatre, 111 S. Geyer Road.

Tickets: Sold out

Box office: 314-821-2407.

Information: www.stagesstlouis.org.

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