Creating a musical — even that inferior form, the jukebox musical — does not have to be so hard, as long as one is working with worthy material. Put appealing music with an interesting story, and the show practically writes itself. Not really, but combine quality material with two top-notch performers and a sharply directed and designed show, and you have Lyric Theatre’s highly satisfying production of the idolizing musical “Always … Patsy Cline,” based on a true story.
Ostensibly a tribute to country vocalist Patsy Cline, the show written by Ted Swindley is largely about one fan who was hooked on the singer after seeing her on Arthur Godfrey’s television show in 1957. Houston housewife Louise Seger later met Cline at a Texas honky-tonk, and they maintained a letter and telephone relationship for six years, until Cline died in an airplane crash at age 30.
It’s not surprising the two became great friends. Louise and Patsy are cut from the same cloth. Louise first sees Patsy on television as a “chunky little country girl” who was “as much us as we were.”
In Lyric’s production, the estimable Brenda Williams plays Louise, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing the part better. Her Louise is funny, folksy, salty and, most importantly, genuine. Louise narrates the show and is mistress of ceremonies, while Patsy seems almost a ghostly presence, not inappropriate considering the singer’s untimely death.
Williams, who has played Louise twice before in productions of “Always” for Oklahoma City Theatre Company, carries the show with her ability to play both comedy and tragedy — or both at the same time, during the weeper “Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray.”
Julie Johnson, who can sell a song as well as any of the great country singers, plays Patsy with a believability that ought to satisfy Cline fans. From the ballads (“Crazy”) to the novelties (“Stupid Cupid”) to the standards (“Bill Bailey”), Johnson re-creates more than two dozen Cline songs with an authenticity that should pass the scrutiny of any vernacular musicologist.
That’s not to say her performance is stodgy or academic. Johnson’s nuanced work brings to the show the better aspects of a tribute band. She bends and scoops into notes, growls in her lower register and even seems to shed a tear on “If I Could See the World (Through the Eyes of a Child).”
Director Michael Baron has placed the performers in a first-rate show, beginning with a swinging, six-piece band in the Bodacious Bobcats, led by Brian T. Hamilton. The group wears matching plaid shirts and cowboy hats; the tasteful, terrific costumes are by Jeffrey Meek.
Lee McIntosh’s effective set design suggests the Grand Ole Opry, a Texas dance hall and Louise’s kitchen with appealing accuracy. And you cannot beat the acoustically superior Plaza Theatre. Brad Poarch’s sound design creates a perfect balance between band and singer, and every lyric is exceptionally clear.
For cryin’ in a bucket, Louise, this is a pretty darned fine show.