Curtain Up: Pair of tough ladies shine in ‘Always... Patsy Cline’

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This was the weekend for tough women playing tough women, singing their hearts out with passion and stamina. God love the female sex.

In “Always... Patsy Cline,” presented by the Naples Players, Jessica Berent steps into some formidable shoes — not only the iconic Patsy, but women who have memorably played the singer — Beverly D’Angelo in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Jessica Lange in “Sweet Dreams.” If she does not quite make us forget her predecessors, she nevertheless is a totally appealing Cline, and her voice more than does justice to the tunes, most of them well known.

The show is essentially a revue, strung together with a story line involving Cline’s true-life relationship with Louise Seeger, a fan whom she met on tour and with whom she corresponded for the rest of her short life. It is an effective device, much more successful than some of the silly filler sometimes used to provide a bridge between songs in this kind of entertainment.

Kathleen Gravatt as Louise is excellent, earthy and funny as a working-class Southern girl who is not as young as she used to be. Louise provides the comic relief and the dramatic interest. This is not deep stuff, but it works, and knowing that it is based on fact fills in the human side of the singer.

Wisely, the story does not try to tell the whole story of Patsy’s life, the troubled marriage, the childhood poverty, the tragic end. Some of these are referred to but they are not actually dramatized on stage. The show practically all takes place over a night and a day in a night club and Louise’s kitchen where the women get to know each other. Keeping it simple is the right idea, and allows us to see the normal Patsy with her hair down.

I love to hear women who sing low, or as a mezzo-soprano friend of mine used to say, “low women who sing.” Berent conveys both. She is good in the peppy numbers like “Honky Tonk Merry Go Round,” but also shows real power in the ballads, phrasing them effectively but not histrionically, and demonstrating her strengths in the long legato lines. I had forgotten just how far down in the register most of Cline’s songs sit. Berent is a powerful contralto and gets all the sex appeal out of those husky notes. She sings all night and her voice never weakens, demonstrating vocal training and discipline not often seen in community theater.

The settings are just right, simple in concept but executed with care and detail. And the onstage country band is wonderful.

Meanwhile, the Metropolitan Opera opened this year’s Live in HD series with a new production of Anna Bolena, the first production ever of this popular Donizetti opera at the Met. As always it is great fun to see a Met production live and up close, being taken backstage before the curtain rises and between the acts to see something of what goes on behind the scenes and meet the singers. Anna Netrebko is a phenomenon, performing feats of stamina in this demanding role with its long and demanding coloratura mad scene at the close. Take the opportunity to see one of the eleven Live in HD productions this year if you can still get tickets.

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