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THEATRE REVIEW: ‘Always … Patsy Cline’ at Sharon Playhouse a glorious, nonstop songfest

Like the trooper Patsy was — and in keeping with the school of hard knocks her songs celebrated — the show moves swiftly into a double encore.

Always … Patsy Cline
By Ted Swindley
Directed by Alan M-L Wager

You don’t have to really like country and western music to really, really enjoy Sharon Playhouse’s “Always … Patsy Cline,” a glorious, nonstop songfest of Cline’s greatest hits and then some, and a lovefest of friendship between her and Houston housewife Louise Seger. Alison Arngrim — of juvenile fame as the nasty sister Nellie Oleson in “Little House on the Prairie” — plays Louise in memory-play format, recounting directly to the audience how she met Patsy in the mid-1950s and how their friendship endured until Patsy’s death in an airplane crash in 1963. Arngrim grabs the audience in a great big bearhug and doesn’t let go, winking at, flirting with, ribbing and cajoling, in a down-home style you can’t resist. Who knew Nellie Oleson could be so nice?

Alison Arngrom as Louise Seger in the Sharon Playhouse production of ‘Always … Patsy Cline.’ Photo: Tom Swetz

The story, conceived and written by Ted Swindley, understates perhaps crucial features of Patsy’s career, like how she was the first woman to take on the record labels and how she paved the way for female country and western stars. The uncomplicated book doesn’t dig too deep into Louise and Patsy’s relationship aside from that they both had husband troubles and were dedicated mothers. But so what? Patsy’s songs say it all about love’s pain and heartache with their pure, simple declaration of life’s ups and downs; and they are perfectly rendered in an amazing vocal performance by Carter Calvert. It’s unfair and plain wrong to say Calvert impersonates Patsy’s voice because Calvert’s own alto is exceptionally richly textured and has a deep, resonant range, but close your eyes and, dayum, you’d swear Patsy was up onstage. What’s more, Calvert’s performance moves beyond technique. There’s emotional clarity in her bold, expressive style. Like Cline, Calvert gets you in the gut.

Calvert matches Cline in all 26 songs performed here. Wisely, Swindley hasn’t inserted the songs in strict chronology; instead he corresponds them to Louise’s rolling memoir. Included are all the big hits, each instantly recognizable, starting with Patsy’s early Grand Ole Opry days with “Walkin’ After Midnight” and “I Fall to Pieces.” Calvert doesn’t have one showstopper here because so many are mesmerizing, but my sentimental favorites are “Sweet Dreams,” which opens the second act; and Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” which puts a lump in this cynic’s throat every time. Arngrim joins Calvert in performing some of Cline’s lighter, happy fare like “Shake Rattle and Roll.” Most unexpected of the song portfolio is Calvert’s a cappella rendition of “If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child)” and the moving spiritual “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.”

Cater Calvert as Patsy Cline and Alison Arngrim as Louise Seger in the Sharon Playhouse production of ‘Always … Patsy Cline.’ Photo: Tom Swetz

The musical direction of the six-piece band by Eric Thomas Johnson is as accurate to Cline’s songs as Calvert’s voice. Director Alan M-L Wager gets best use yet of the old barn of Sharon Playhouse with a versatile, fixed set of Louise’s 1950s kitchen stage right, the Houston bar where Louise and Patsy met stage left, and an elevated stage for the band in between that doubles as the Grand Ole Opry and Patsy’s concert venues. Smartly, Wager leaves a backdrop of the barn’s posts and barn siding exposed, washed in a red, white and blue lighting scheme. Costumes, modeled on Cline’s actual wardrobe, are stunning and tell a story in themselves. As Cline’s career developed, she went from country and western — fringe, cowboy hat and boots — to elegant cocktail dresses and high heels. Calvert has about a dozen costume changes that reflect Cline’s changing style as her career progressed.

Swindley’s book doesn’t dwell on Patsy’s untimely death too long. Like the trooper Patsy was — and in keeping with the school of hard knocks her songs celebrated — the show moves swiftly into a double encore. First and fitting is “If You’ve Got Leavin’ on Your Mind,” which was one of Patsy’s posthumous hits. Then, in duet with Arngrim, Calvert concludes with a knee-slappin’, crowd-pleasing rendition of the good ole’ American traditional “Bill Bailey (Won’t You Please Come Home).” A grand ole time is had by all.

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Always … Patsy Cline plays at the Sharon Playhouse, 49 Amenia Road, Sharon, Connecticut, through Sunday, Sept.2. For information and tickets, see the Berkshire Edge calendar, go online to SharonPlayhouse.org or call the box office at (860) 364-7469×201.

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