IF YOU GO
What: Two-person show about the friendship between Patsy Cline and Texas housewife Louise Seger
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 29
Where: 701 5th Avenue South, Naples
Information: (239) 263-7990, naplesplayers.org
Something else: Request a seat in Row F if you would like the chance to dance with Kathleen Butler Gravatt when she comes into the crowd.
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NAPLES — An all-star band and the solid debut of Southwest Florida newcomer Jessica Berent in a tough-to-fill role lift mediocre-even-for-Branson musical "Always, Patsy Cline" from barely passable to good enough for Nashville. If you like country, you'll go "Crazy" for this!
"Always, Patsy Cline," written by Ted Swindley, traces the relationship between the big-voiced country-western singer and Texas housewife Louise Seger. The title comes from the way Cline closed her letters - "Love Always, Patsy Cline." It includes 27 of the singer's hits, including "Crazy," "Walkin' After Midnight" "I Fall to Pieces" and "Your Cheatin' Heart." (Full disclosure: The Naples Players production of "Always, Patsy Cline" is sponsored in part by The Naples Daily News.)
If you like country music, Patsy Cline or hokey Branson, Missouri-style acts, this is the show for you. This is not a musical. It is sadly not even a Patsy Cline revue. It is a series of Patsy Cline songs interrupted with some other scenes. Jessica Berent, in her Naples Players debut, knocks it out of the park in a role that essentially asks her to recreate a legend.
Berent - and director John McKerrow - neatly avoid the issue. The actress puts her own spin on Patsy Cline, choosing to be a talented singer instead of trying to impersonate the icon. It is a wise choice, as no one could ever "be" Patsy. Some songs do stir the feel of a honky tonk deep in Texas though, or a dark, dusty dive bar in a back alley in Nashville. Listen for lesser-known classics like "Seven Lonely Days," lost love dirge "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray" or even "Faded Love."
Swindley's sub-par script does no favors to Kathleen Butler Gravatt as Louise. The role, meant to highlight the more human side of the incandescent star that was Patsy Cline, is badly under-written. The show never gets close to exploring the fascinating Patsy-Louise relationship, relying instead on slapstick and comedy. Even Patsy's tragic death in a 1963 plane crash feels wedged in.
McKerrow tries to add some life to the Louise character by making her more active, letting Gravatt, clad in outre skin-tight olive denim and a pink flowered cowboy shirt, dance around the stage, run out into the crowd, show off her red-and-white cowboy boots and in general act like a honky tonk devil. The antics can be cartoonishly distracting when Berent belts a ballad - and other times a welcome relief when the night threatens to stretch into a molasses-paced two-hour concert.
In general though, the opening night crowd applauded the comedy, clapped along gamely with the rousing tunes and howled with glee as Gravatt repeatedly admired the fit of her jeans by cupping her rear or bent over and peered through her legs at the crowd.
Charles Fornara's absolutely superb six-piece band - dubbed "The Bodacious Bobcats" in the script and togged in Western wear - joins the two women on stage, serving as virtually a third character. The show regrettably sidesteps recognizing band members by name in favor one of the script's (poorly written) jokes dubbing them all some variation of "Bob" - "Jim-Bob," "Billy-Bob," etc. No matter - their talent is well worth the price of admission.
Matt Flynn's gorgeous and meticulously detailed set collects records, album covers, photos, a jukebox and more to give a lived-in, down-home bar feel. You'll want to examine it up close. All that's missing are some peanut shells on the floor, a few beer bottles and a spittoon. A Grand Ole Opry facade drops in for several scenes - and a dingy yellow corner serves as Louise's kitchen.
Over-the-top costumes from Mary A. Wallace follow the show's general yee-haw feel. Berent enters in a country-fried red and white fringe number before moving, like Cline's real-life career, to more glamorous evening wear. Some are hits (an icy blue gown with cutaway sleeves); some are misses (a shimmery purple dress). David Goguen's hair and makeup design arrives similarly Texas-sized, with thick ruby lips and acres of blush for Berent and blue eye shadow and an enormous puff of hair for Gravatt.
Despite the quality - or considerable lack thereof - in the script, Jessica Berent delivers a bravura set of Patsy Cline tunes backed by some high-quality musicianship. Kathleen Butler Gravatt does as she's asked - and bounces around the intricate honky tonk set with all kind of moves. If you're looking for a Patsy Cline concert with a splash of comedy, this is the one.
Full disclosure: The Naples Players production of "Always, Patsy Cline" is sponsored in part by The Naples Daily News.
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