Patsy Cline exists in many people’s minds as a voice. Her unmistakable contralto, able to convey heartache, world-weary wisdom and even humor, is often imitated and has a solid place in musical history. But what do we really know about her, aside from the voice and the fact that she died at age 30 in a plane crash in 1963?
Fortunately, Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of Ted Swindley’s “Always… Patsy Cline,” directed by Jon Ferreira and opening this Friday, will shed a little light on a country music icon who nevertheless remains mysterious, 50 years after her death. The show blends the memories of a real-life woman named Louise Seger, who corresponded with Cline in the two years before her death, with 27 of the singer’s classic songs.
Cline is played by the energetic, clear-voiced singer and actress Laura Hodos, who eastern Maine audiences may recognize from her late 1990s stints with PTC and with the Acadia Repertory Theater. Seger is played by Bangor actress Julie Arnold Lisnet — a formidable stage presence and hard-working area theater mainstay.
“I knew about as much as anyone did when we started working on this, even though I grew up listening to her. My mother was a huge fan,” said Lisnet. “She’s a hard woman to know since she died so young. I think, after this play, I know her a little better, at least about her emotional life. This play is not a biography. It’s about a friendship between two women.”
If Cline were alive today, both Lisnet and Hodos, as well as director Ferreira agree, she’d be a crossover artist. Though she was always well within the world of country and western, Cline even today has fans that like all kind of genres.
“She was really transcendent,” said Ferreira. “Tried and true country fans love her, and people who otherwise don’t like country love her. That’s what makes her interesting. And the fact that her star faded so early means that she’s kind of frozen in time.”
Trying to match an iconic vocalist such as Cline has been a challenge for Hodos, who has an extensive background in musical theater.
“What I had to do was find every recording ever made of all of the songs that are in the show, and listen to them all 1,000 times,” said Hodos. “There are little things that she does with her voice that are so totally her, and if you don’t do them, you’re not even close to being her. There are all sorts of little mannerisms that are very judiciously placed, that make her uniquely her.”
Hodos is backed in “Always… Patsy Cline” by a six-piece band comprised of a number of area musicians, including pianist and musical director Colin Graebert, drummer Tom Libby, 15-year-old fiddler Max Silverstein, bassist Gaylen Smith, guitarist John Burlock and pedal steel player Dave O’Brien, an import from New Jersey. They’re known as the Bodacious Bobcat Band, and they provide the musical foil to Hodos’ lively onstage presence, as she banters back and forth with the musicians. A 1960s-inspired set was designed by Chez Cherry, and Patsy’s many costumes were created by Rebecca Wright.
As fun as the music may be, however, it’s a real workout for the two actresses. Hodos and Lisnet have to carry the weight of the show on their shoulders, be it Hodos’ honky-tonkin’ vocal pyrotechnics, or the sad story Lisnet relates, as her character reveals her unlikely friendship and two-year correspondence with a country music icon.
“Patsy and Louise are kindred spirits. They’re both women in a man’s world. They’re both one of the boys,” said Lisnet. “But underneath it all is this real vulnerability and loneliness. It’s really touching, in a lot of ways.”
“Always… Patsy Cline” starts in previews at the Bangor Opera House at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 4, with two more previews at 7 p.m. Sept. 5 and 6. The 2012-13 season premiere is set for 8 p.m. Friday, Sept. 7. Additional performances this weekend are set for 5 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. The show runs through Sept. 23. For ticket information, call 942-3333 or visit penobscottheatre.org.