Want to see strong women on stage? Check out ‘Always … Patsy Cline’

Posted June 12, 2017, at 5:46 p.m.
Last modified June 12, 2017, at 6:15 p.m.

Like a Wonder Woman icon, Patsy Cline’s legacy as a tender singer and tough woman juggling music with motherhood stands long after her 1963 death. Even if you’re not a fan of country music or crooners, the opening show of Maine State Music Theatre’s 59th season, “Always … Patsy Cline,” is well worth seeing, as it delves into the relationship between performers and fans with warmth, intimacy and stage presence that transcends genre.

“Always … Patsy Cline” opens with a scene at The Grand Ole Opry. The band is on stage — thankfully out of the pit for once. The talented musicians play the opening bars to “Honky Tonk Merry Go Round” before Patsy Cline, portrayed by Christine Mild, strolls onstage to sing the toe-tapping but forgettable tune.

The band looks bored. Cline’s outfit isn’t anything to write home about. But that is OK because this show isn’t really about Cline. She will drift in and out during the first act like radio stations in a pickup truck barreling down the back roads of Country Music, USA.

The action begins to crackle when Cline comes face to face with the real star of the show, Louise Seger. Louise embodies country music fandom. She knows every lyric and downbeat, using Cline’s music to buffer herself from a drab life of downward mobility. Hero worship mixes with self-delusion in her struggle to find rare moments of joy in surroundings that otherwise would fit nicely as the backdrop for a depressing country ballad.

From the moment Charis Leos as Louise shuffles on stage after the first song, in ratty bathrobe and slouchy slippers, she invites us to sit back like old friends and listen to her rapidly relate memories of how she became first a fan and then a friend of chart climber Patsy Cline.

“When I first met Patsy that evening, I started out calling her ‘ma’am.’ I called her ma’am because she was a star — to me, the biggest star in the world,” Louise explains. “But by the end of the night, I’d say, ‘hey, gal’, because she was like a sister to me.”

Leos, a perennial MSMT favorite, connects with her audience through comedy. She juts a hip here, gives a wink and a half-smile there to narrate the story of her character’s admiration for and friendship with the country music star. It’s all-American hero worship, embellished with winks that break the fourth wall and heavy nods to the physical humor of vaudeville.

Meanwhile, Mild may be playing a memory but she captures every nuance of Cline’s singing style, from the way she could bend a note to how she could just as easily end it with a hiccup or rough it up for a low growl. The physical resemblance is near enough to be believable. Her vocal imitation rings uncannily perfect.

Near the end of the second act, the air becomes misty. The hazy club lighting evokes smells of nicotine and gin, transporting back to a time you never lived through to experience Cline’s velvety “You Belong to Me.”

The authentic set dressing, from vintage kitchen canisters to the heavy square microphone, adds to the nostalgic atmosphere. Patsy Cline’s songs, filled with all the heartache and longing Mild gives them, live on.

Leos keeps the tempo moving by breaking the fourth wall repeatedly, cajoling the audience to admire her outfit and sing along to the radio, and she even strides into the house to pick a dancing partner. She crosses that invisible barrier to allow the audience into her life, just as in Act II, Louise offers Patsy, alone on tour, a place to crash after a local show.

Instead of sleeping, the two women bare their souls to share heartaches and parenting advice over coffee and cigarettes. By the end of show, audience members will feel that same mix of being starstruck and feeling sisterly to these real-life characters. Witnessing this relationship develop is the reason to attend MSMT’s entertaining show.

Louise says, “A secret’s no fun less you tell somebody.” So grab your favorite gossip gal or guy and snag a seat at Pickard Theater to see “Always…Patsy Cline.” Two extra matinees have been added. As Texan Louise would say, “watcha waitin’ for?”

“Always Patsy Cline” plays Tuesday to Sunday through June 24 at Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus in Brunswick. Running time is approximately two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. Ticket prices range from $59 to $80. For more information or to purchase tickets, go to msmt.org.

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