Musically In-Clined

If memory serves, Archie Bunker never ranted about brilliant country and western stars who experienced rapid career trajectories and died tragic deaths -- possibly because none ever crossed his path. So it's difficult to imagine what he'd think of daughter Gloria losing her head over Patsy Cline. Of course, more than two decades have passed since Sally Struthers walked onto the set of All in the Family, but no one watching the actress perform in Always... Patsy Cline at the Hollywood Playhouse is likely to forget the one role that made her a household name. (No, I don't mean the infomercials for the Save the Children foundation.)

Always... can't be called a vanity project, exactly. The title role is played by relative newcomer Rachel Lynn Ricca, a charismatic cabaret singer who, wig on head, bears a striking resemblance to Cline. Struthers plays Louise, a housewife who becomes friends with the musician after a chance meeting in Houston in 1961. This production came into being after several Playhouse board members worked with the actresses on a Broadway tryout in 1997. The result? Well, there are worse things to do than listen to Patsy Cline's music for two hours. Nonetheless, nothing Struthers does on stage is likely to convince anyone that her range goes far beyond the demands of playing Gloria Stivic.

Most damning is the actress' refusal to take charge of the show. It may be difficult to compete with a costar who belts out Cline's hits and other country standards with a voice like a velvet ax. Ricca doesn't reinvent Cline in the manner of k.d. lang, but with every chestful of air, she powerfully conjures up the memory of Cline's gorgeous and baroque vocal mannerisms.

The show is designed to showcase Cline favorites, from "Crazy" and "Walkin' After Midnight" to less well-known covers of Hank Williams and Bill Monroe songs, and Michael Larsen's musical direction is almost always sure of itself. Still, the love affair between fan and star cuts as deep as any other relationship, and Always... is supposed to be Louise's story. This Louise, however, hangs on the sidelines, letting the audience experience her idol's power without ever letting us see its deep effect on her.

Based on the real-life story of a woman who befriended Cline, Always... opens with the singer performing three songs in succession -- "Honky Tonk Merry Go Round," "Back in Baby's Arms," and "Anytime" -- on a Grand Ol' Opry set. (The live music is played on stage by a likable quartet dubbed the Bodacious Bobcat's Band.) Midway through "Anytime," a pallet rolls on stage bearing Louise and the set that represents her kitchen. Directly addressing the audience, Louise tells us about the first time she heard the singer, on an Arthur Godfrey show, which her children were watching on TV in the other room one day in 1957. Or as she puts it, "I was subconsciously listening to the television."

I'm not sure what Freud would make of that remark, but what we learn is that from that day forward, Louise was hooked. Cline, however, wasn't yet the superstar she soon would be. She dropped out of sight temporarily, and Louise doesn't encounter her again until 1961, when she hears "I Fall to Pieces" on the radio (again, by listening "subconsciously"). By this time Louise is divorced, a happy liberation Struthers indicates by kicking up her heels in what's to become Louise's signature gesture. She also speaks in a raspy voice that bears an eerie resemblance to that of another high-profile Texan, Bobby from the animated sitcom King of the Hill.

The actress may indeed be playing a high-spirited, beer-lovin' Houston housewife in the days before Slim-Fast was invented, but there's something slightly off about Louise's appearance. It's not only that Struthers is overweight -- although, thanks to her outfit of oversize black country and western shirt atop black leggings and cowboy boots, we see a lot more of her large rear end than we really want. With her well-coifed helmet of a hairdo, Struthers seems to be fighting the notion that she's supposed to be less than glamorous. Louise is an ordinary person. Struthers is portraying a star disguised as a mortal, and the effect is silly. She plays to the audience, which is fine for those who want an up-close glimpse of an Emmy-winning TV actress, but the effort keeps us from getting lost in the story.

Always... is told in flashbacks as Louise recounts her one meeting with Cline before a show at Houston's famous Esquire Ballroom (a gigantic dance hall the size of several football fields, according to Louise). Having arrived early, Louise notices a woman checking out the room and realizes it's the singer. She introduces herself to the down-to-earth Cline, and the two share a beer. In a scene that poignantly comments on Cline's naivete, Louise helps Patsy negotiate with the Ballroom management and gets them to agree to two short sets rather than one backbreaking four-hour ordeal. She takes the singer home for a midnight breakfast after the show and gets her an interview at a radio station the next morning. By the time Cline leaves town, the two are bosom buddies.

The fascinating thing about Always... is that it matches the star with a prototypical fan, a woman who might have been the speaker in nearly every Cline tearjerker. Louise's obsession with the singer is something with which any fan can identify, while Cline's music -- particularly a quicksand heartbreaker like "I Fall to Pieces" -- explains how pop music can be like morphine for those of us on this side of the radio. You don't have to be a country listener to envy the two-year-long correspondence Louise kept with Patsy until the singer's death in a plane crash in 1963. (The show's title comes from the sign-off phrase Patsy used in her letters.)

For the most part, however, the dialogue written for Louise to describe what must be one of the greatest instances of female bonding on record is trite and generic: "This is a damn big place," Patsy says to Louise, describing the Ballroom. "Yes ma'am, it is and pretty soon it's gonna be jam-packed," Louise replies. The playwright, Ted Swindley, is apparently more interested in the opportunity for audience participation. He has Patsy and Louise lead the audience in a few choruses of "Come On In (And Sit Right Down)" just before the intermission.

With her patrician good looks and her ability to wear both Cline's sequined cowgirl outfits and her sophisticated suits and pumps, Ricca is a marvelous embodiment of Cline's double nature. (Anita Kessel's costumes for Ricca are great.) Cline was a torch singer who was born into the country and western tradition. Although she was only 30 years old when she died, Cline etched out a personal style, a hybrid of two traditions that was anything but Nashville cookie-cutter. The fact that it's taken 30 years for a k.d. lang to come along and try to clone her speaks of Cline's originality.

Swindley's script, on the other hand, leaves plenty of room for interpreting Louise and making her original. What Struthers egregiously misses is a chance to show us the human side of fandom. Her performance is cartoonish, unapologetic but not without its charms. It's self-deprecating but also full of ham. In a perfect world, director Andy Rogow should have discouraged this. (And it might have been wise to excise lines like the ones in which Louise asks the Hollywood audience, mostly retired New Yorkers, to acknowledge their familiarity with Southern honky-tonks.) In the universe in which Always... exists, all that's needed is an audience in search of nostalgia. Anyone hoping for something else will be disappointed, perhaps even tempted to walk away muttering Archie Bunker's answer to lame theater: "Aw, chee whiz."

Always... Patsy Cline.
Written by Ted Swindley. Directed by Andy Rogow. Musical direction by Michael Larsen. Starring Sally Struthers and Rachel Lynn Ricca. Through June 20. Hollywood Playhouse, 2640 Washington St., Hollywood, 954-922-0404.

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Robin Dougherty