OCT shines spotlight on a legendary country diva

Virginia Patterson Hensley — aka Patsy Cline — was the first female superstar in country music. She was also a true original. Fifty years ago, females in the business were supposed to be decorative little things who knew their place.

But "the Cline," as she called herself, promoted herself relentlessly, got top billing, drank with the boys, laughed at their off-color jokes and told her own. She even stood up to sleazy producers, issuing a famous "no dough, no show" ultimatum and making it stick. She changed the industry, paving the way for women and for the slick "Nashville Sound."

Little of this comes through in "A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline," which opened Friday night at the Oregon Cabaret Theatre in Ashland. The show, created by composer/singer/director/producer Dean Regan with input from Cline's widower, Charlie Dick, is a collection of songs focusing on the Cline (portrayed by Kymberli Colbourne) as a singer, not as a person.

It's not to be confused with "Always ... Patsy Cline," Ted Swindley's musical play about Cline. "Always" is a narrative with actors and a plot about the singer's relationship with a fan. "Closer Walk" is a concert with a singer doing straight-ahead performances of many of the star's hits.

The only character other than Cline is a comedy role, one man playing a disk jockey, a Grand Ol' Opry comic and a Las Vegas comic. What context the show presents for Cline's songs — it's not much — comes mostly through the DJ. All three characters are entertainingly played by Seattle actor, magician and clown Christopher Bange.

The show features 19 Cline hits, including "Walkin' After Midnight," "Always," "I Fall to Pieces" and "Crazy."

Colbourne sings well. She doesn't sound a lot like Cline, but then, neither does anybody else. Cline had a big contralto voice with a sort of crying note in it that grabbed your heartstrings.

Colbourne is a trained and talented singer who sounds more like Cline in some songs ("Back in Baby's Arms") than others.

She has about a million costume changes, progressing from the cowgirl outfits Cline's mother used to make for the singer to fancier togs for performances in Las Vegas and Carnegie Hall. Throw in Bange's outfits (country bumpkin, lounge lizard), and costume designer Kerri Lea Robbins had fun with this one.

The show begins at Radio WINC in Winchester, Va., with Bange as DJ Little Big Man. As DJs of the day did, he reads the news (the aftermath of the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis), sports (heavyweight champ Sonny Liston's second knockout of Floyd Patterson in July of '63) and cuts to commercials (Mr. Clean can clean your whole house ... and everything that's in it!).

Colbourne delivers big, Cline-esque performances of Bob Wills' "Faded Love," Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart" and Alan Block's and Don Hecht's "Walkin' After Midnight."

Cline had been kicking around in the business for several years when she sang "Walkin'" in 1957 on "Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts," the ancestor of shows like "American Idol," and became a star.

For the number, Colbourne changed costumes while Bange told jokes as an Opry comic (Bange: My wife is so fat ... Audience: How fat is she? Bange: I took her camping and the bears covered up their food). Colbourne returned in a cocktail dress, which Godfrey producers in 1957 had insisted Cline wear on the show.

But it wasn't until 1961 when Randy Hughes became her manager and Owen Bradley her producer that she cut the ballad "I Fall to Pieces." The song was a hit on both the country and pop charts, and Cline was a bona fide superstar. The song comes late in the show, tucked in between a gorgeous take on Don Gibson's "Sweet Dreams," which Cline sang at Carnegie Hall, and the old chestnut "Bill Bailey," which Colbourne and the boys begin as a slinky torch song and turn into a barnburner.

In the second act, when Cline's act has taken her from country radio and the Opry to New York City and Las Vegas, the band dons dinner jackets. But there's still cornball material (hey, it's the '50s and '60s in country music). Some of the jokes are a little iffy, and I draw the line at a "Jimmy Crack Corn" sing-along, but that's just me.

Colbourne can't quite pull off the yodel notes in "Lovesick Blues" (I got a feelin' called the blu-u-ues ... ) with conviction. She may be at her best on weepers like Hank Cochran's "She's Got You." She also has a very nice go at Willie Nelson's "Crazy," a song Cline found difficult.

She's fronting a terrific country combo of keyboardist John Taylor, Guitarist Fred Epping and drummer Tom Freeman, all of whom are quality players. The score did not strongly reflect the change in Cline's music as she "crossed over" from her early, raw, country sound with fiddles and pedal steel to the smooth Nashville sound with its highly arranged strings and production values.

The band is cut off from Colbourne/Cline by a stub wall running across the stage. Opening up the set would have had the effect of bringing a crackerjack band more into the show, and that couldn't be a bad thing.

For all my quibbling, "A Closer Walk" is a must for fans of Cline, who has sold millions of records since her death and, like Elvis, just keeps going.

Bill Varble writes about arts and entertainment for the Mail Tribune. He can be reached at varble.bill@gmail.com.

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