October 5, 1999
A Review by Ernie and Pat Pinson
Well, you have to hand it to Michael McKee and Stan Chapman of the Mobile Theatre Guild, they picked themselves a winner to open the season. And if that wasn't enough, a new patio walk and garden made a better, roomier atmosphere. This play has drawn raves everywhere it is presented: Jackson, MS; Nashville, TN; Barter Theater in Abington, VA; Shakespeare Festival Theater in Montgomery. Opening night of September 17 was no exception in the packed 175-person capacity Mobile Theatre. Seems like Always Patsy Cline has been around for...well...always. Of course, to call it a play with so little action, so much singing, and only two characters on stage to interact with the great four piece Bodacious Bobcats band and the Starlites vocal trio all also on stage, is stretching the concept of drama a bit. Still, lots of one man/one woman shows like Hal Holbrook's Mark Twain and Julie Harris's Emily Dickenson: Belle of Amherst make big hits, so why not a duo as well?
In this musical (unlike, say, Evita or Phantom of the Opera) everything exists for the songs. The whole narration serves to introduce the songs; the band is there obviously for the songs; the costumes exist to enhance the songs (the opening "Honky Tonk Merry Go Round" with the gorgeous red dress of Patsy, the red neckerchiefs of the band/singers, the red lighting that made the walls glow red -- yep, all for the Honky Tonk atmosphere. The meager set on stage points us to the jukebox, the bandstand, the radio, and even the kitchen where Louise entertains Patsy Cline in her home. No money lost in props; very little lost in costumes as well, except on the frequent changes for Patsy. But Louise changes not at all; we hope that's intended contrast. And the narrative monologue, of which there is ample, carried by Louise is a clever device (although not a new one) for presenting a biographical play. It shifts the angle of information into only one conduit, thus permitting intimacy and intense focus on the subject Patsy herself and her singing talent.
And did Paula Broadwater ever do herself gloriously! Talented actor she is not, but then neither was the real-life Patsy Cline, so nothing lost, right? One could wish for more natural gestures and not so forced animation in Patsy's role but the voice made up for it. Then there was Patricia Marsh whose low-guttural-husky-voice, big eyes, and extremely natural animation enhanced her foxy, folksy, style counterbalanced perfectly the blandness of Patsy. In what seemed a well designed duo in stage time and in stage presence, they played off each other's forte well -- Patricia strutted her wry, comical, Grand Ole Opry stuff, while Paula danced across the stage, or crooned in a low-sexy-blues voice in oh-so-slow time. And all was well, very well, with the crowd. They clapped, they sang, they laughed, they cried, and they hated it when the play ended.
If we would change anything it would be the script. There is absolutely no dramatic action, and the plot is rather bare. Of course we can hear the outcry -- "it's the music, stupid, that's what people come for." And come they do. So who are we to challenge success?
This show was put on 4 or 5 years ago in Jackson, MS, by the Mississippi Repertory Company. As we recall, they imported a seasoned performer who had sung to stardom in Arkansas as Patsy Cline. She was good, very good; but this performance by the Mobile Theater Guild loses nary a point by comparison. We said it before; we'll say it again: few cities this size, nor many larger ones (e.g., Birmingham), can outperform the two community theatres here. Mobileans should certainly be proud of that fact, but they should do more; they should support the excellent talent by attending performances, vis a vis the packed house this night.