A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline marks the second time in two years that Bristol Riverside Theatre has staged a show about the life of Cline, one of country music’s greatest stars. (Always… Patsy Cline, which ran at the theatre in early 2015, was the first.) And it marks the second time that the theatre has enlisted Jessica Wagner to play Cline. Wagner’s stellar performance captures the essence of what made Cline’s music so beloved, and she elevates this standard biographical play into something special.
Dean Regan’s script for A Closer Walk tracks the meteoric rise of Cline (1932 – 1963), one of country’s first crossover stars. The play follows Cline from her first performances in her hometown of Winchester, Virginia, to stardom at the Grand Ole Opry, to a headlining appearance at Carnegie Hall, to her death in a plane crash at age 30.
Wagner captures Cline’s down-home, easygoing charm. But more importantly, she replicates Cline’s rich, expressive singing voice. Cline was the first major star to incorporate jazz and R&B influences into country music, and Wagner gets Cline’s style down perfectly: the scoops, the vibrato, the soulful growls. Wagner’s best performance comes on a version of the Irving Berlin standard “Always” that’s full of jazzy runs, elongated notes, and behind-the-beat phrasing. It’s a masterful turn.
A Closer Walk is a better show than Always… Patsy Cline. The earlier show, which focused on a devoted Cline fan more than on Cline herself, came off as a slight curiosity. A Closer Walk uses the framework of a tribute to Cline on her hometown radio show, narrated by a disc jockey known as Little Big Man (played by Danny Vaccaro). In between Wagner’s songs, the DJ tells the audience about Cline’s life. This structure makes for an appealingly straightforward show.
But it’s a shame that the DJ’s speeches are frustratingly vague (“There’s something magic in Patsy’s voice”). And because the show is more a concert than a play, we never learn what Cline was like offstage. I would have liked to have seen portrayals of Cline’s husband and mother, rather than just a few brief references to them. And as the show proceeds, and Cline’s music becomes more sophisticated, I would have liked to learn why it changed and what part Cline and her producer Owen Bradley played in that.
Regan’s script also takes a few bizarre comic turns. Twice during the show we see concert sequences that are proceeded by Cline’s unnamed opening acts – a pair of outlandish comedians (both played by Vaccaro) telling a bunch of old, corny jokes. These interludes have nothing to do with Cline, and they gets in the way of learning more about Cline, her life, and her music.
A Closer Walk also improves on the previous show by adding a quartet of backup singers. They portray the Jordanaires, the veteran Nashville gospel/pop group that backed Cline on many of her best recordings. The singers (Nate Golden, Sean C. White, Christopher J. Perugini, and Jared Calhoun) have a good vocal blend, and they add richness to the arrangements. The five-piece onstage band is terrific too; the standout player is guitarist Neil Nemetz, who craftily interpolates the solo from Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” into the rockabilly number “Stop, Look and Listen.”
Robert Wolin’s set design uses neutral-toned walls that provide an effective backdrop for John Hoey’s multi-colored lighting. And Costume Designer Linda B. Stockton supplies a striking array of costumes for Wagner – over a dozen different outfits. In her earliest hometown performance, we see Cline wearing a patchwork dress and saddle shoes. As she climbs the country charts in the 1950s, she dons a series of cowgirl outfits, complete with boots, cowboy hat, and a generous amount of fringe. And by the second act, as Cline headlines in Las Vegas and at Carnegie Hall in the 1960s, she’s wearing a series of stunning, elegant evening gowns.
Founding Director Susan D. Atkinson – directing the first production of the theatre’s thirtieth season – gives A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline a sweet, nostalgic, respectful tone, and it lets the audience experience her classic songs in a loving environment. And it provides an opportunity to see Jessica Wagner bring those songs to life with her vibrant, ardent performance.
Running Time: One hour and 45 minutes, including an intermission.
A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline plays through October 16, 2016 at Bristol Riverside Theatre – 120 Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 785-0100, or purchase them online.