Patsy Cline, born Virginia Hensley, was practically a child when she began singing in local talent shows and nightclubs around the Shenandoah Valley. She was a peppy, brash young country singer swinging her fringes around the stage and belting out tunes with the best of them.
By the end of her twenties she had transformed herself into one of the premiere popular vocalists of the century, with a keen instinct for channeling heartbreak and longing into something bearable and beautiful. She died in a plane crash at the young age of 30. Despite her fame, her career had hardly begun.
If you’re looking to understand Cline and her love of torch music with a twang, the Globe Theatre’s A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline is probably not the place to look. This is more of an extended love letter to the singer and the era in which she came to fame – that strange historical interlude between the end of World War II and the assassination of John F. Kennedy. It’s a time when radio was still king, music came on vinyl and America had no idea that it was headed for Vietnam, the Summer of Love and the rest of its murky future.
In the WINC Radio studio on March 5, 1963, DJ Little Big Man (Duncan Fisher) takes us through Patsy’s life and career with a musical tribute. As he shuffles his 45s, Cline appears and takes the stage. We witness her career in its various stages: teenage hopeful, Grand Old Opry singer and crossover singer on stages ranging from the Mint Casino to Carnegie Hall.
Between songs, Fisher and the absolutely stellar band perform colourful, nostalgic routines from the past: old commercial jingles (“Ajax! Stronger than dirt!”), stand-up comedy routines of purest cornpone (“My wife is so ugly…”) and musical breaks designed to get the audience cheering and clapping along. Even if you don’t care for Patsy Cline, Jason Heistad’s fiddle performance at the start of the second act will blow you away.
Since we never glimpse Cline’s inner or even offstage life, much of the play rests on Duncan Fisher’s performance as a combination of narrator, stand-up comic and carnival barker. Fisher, whom I’ve seen in several plays over the season, is at his best here, working the audience and keeping the energy up throughout a play that, at its heart, has no particular story to tell beyond a sketched-out overview of Patsy Cline’s career.
The real burden, of course, falls on Amy Sellors. It’s her task to pull off a believable Patsy Cline. This is not a job I’d sign up for (for starters, I’d have to get rid of the beard) – after all, who but Patsy Cline could sing those notes so smoothly and sadly?
Sellors doesn’t look much like the singer, but in some ways that works in her favour. With her long face and prominent cheekbones, she reminds me more of a ‘70s-era Ronee Blakley, who’s probably best known for playing the doomed country singer in Robert Altman’s Nashville. That unconscious echo of a different (and fictional) death reverberates most strongly during Sellors’ renditions of “Just A Closer Walk With Thee.” With that lean face, it’s almost as if we’re watching her character being hollowed out prematurely by impending tragedy.
Sellors turns in a decent vocal performance, even if she isn’t always able to sustain some of the long, low notes that Cline seemed to deliver so effortlessly. If anything, you begin to understand the depth of Cline’s talent when a performer of Sellors’ caliber runs into difficulties.
The ideal audience for A Closer Walk is probably people who remember Patsy Cline or at least grew up with her music, but this show is great for a multi-generational family outing. Some of the patter is a little salty, and we’re frequently invited to laugh at attitudes that are out of fashion in this day and age, but this is one of the Globe’s big crowd pleasers. It’s not just a love letter to Cline, it’s a big sloppy kiss for the patrons.
A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline runs to June 26. Find out more about the production or buy tickets online at the Globe website.