Over the years I’ve seen a number of productions of Ted McSwidley’s Patsy Cline musical, “Always … Patsy Cline.”
With more than 25 hits from Patsy’s music catalogue, the show never fails to entertain and usually leads me back to my record collection to play those well-worn Patsy LPs. (Yes, vinyl).
But as great as all those great songs are, “Patsy, the musical” has always landed a pale copy of the original Miss Patsy Cline hits.
Well, I can’t say “always” anymore.
Park Playhouse’s current production of “Always … Patsy Cline” at the Cohoes Music Hall is a spectacular achievement, paying a right and welcome homage to Cline’s artistry as well as showcasing one of this area’s outstanding vocalists/actresses, Molly McGrath.
“Always … Patsy Cline” is not a great musical. It offers scant insight into the artist’s life or struggle and it has little, if any, dramatic tension. But with a score full of hits like “I Fall to Pieces,” “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “You Belong to Me” and “Back in Baby’s Arms,” who really cares?
The script — if you can call it that — is a clumsy construct rife with “Hee-Haw” humor and cornball wrapped around that glorious Patsy Cline songbook.
Supposedly, and rather alarmingly, based on a true story, “Always… Patsy Cline” tells the tale of how Patsy’s biggest fan — a fast talking, d-i-v-o-r-c-e-d Texas housewife and mother of two named Louise, met Miss Patsy Cline before one of her concerts. Good ’ol gal Louise insists that Patsy stay at her house, feeds her a midnight meal of bacon and eggs, watches over Patsy as she sleeps in her daughter’s bed, drives Patsy to a hastily arranged radio station interview, then whisks Patsy off to the airport to her next gig.
In return, Louise is blessed with a couple letters of gratitude from Miss Cline (instead of a restraining order) and a supposed meaning to her little quiet life. Song cue: “Crazy!”
Luckily this story of an obsessed-fan-meets-her-idol is just that, a happy account of a cherished moment of connection between artist and fan. Yes, Louise is a nut job. But she’s a lovable nut job and that good grace is largely due to Benita Zahn’s engaging and wildly entertaining performance.
Strutting around the stage in cowgirl boots, Zahn spills out the story of her fan-girl crush cloaked in a sassy twang, and with such earnest enthusiasm you find yourself smiling at this force of nature, silently whispering — “You go girl. Tell me more.”
On the flip side, with a soaring voice full of warmth and color, McGrath is absolute perfection as the object of her fan’s obsession. Not offering a carbon copy of Cline — nor should she — McGrath masters Cline’s distinctive scoops and tones, and grabs Cline’s little twinges of emotional reveal without overreaching. McGrath’s vocals are stellar. “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Honky Tonk Merry-Go-Round” and “Shake Rattle and Roll” are all delivered with punch.
But the reflective moments at the top of act two with the pairing of Cline’s signature pieces “Sweet Dreams” and “She’s Got You” are exceptional, with McGrath reaching past Patsy, revealing something more visceral and resonant.
The high point of the evening for the three women seated in front of me was McGrath’s electric “Stupid Cupid.”
Suddenly afflicted with a happy memory of dancing round the living room when they were 10, or a quick onset of St. Vitus Dance, there was no way these three were going to stay seated. And by golly, who could blame them?
Especially when backed by such a great band — The Bodacious Bobcats led by Brian Axford. Even I almost got up to join them. I said almost.
McGrath and Zahn are clearly having a great time performing together and their delight is contagious. A great night out. Unmissable.
‘Always ... Patsy Cline’
WHERE: Cohoes Music Hall — A Park Playhouse production
WHEN: Through Oct. 15
HOW MUCH: $25; general admission
MORE INFO: 518-465-4663, www.parkplayhouse.org