The Bigger Picture Is Missing in NCR’s Unanchored ‘Always… Patsy Cline’

Louise Seger Zurbuchen died in 2004 at age 72, with the appropriate measure of anticipation intact. The Texas native’s reward would include a reunion with the Patsy Cline, whose short-lived country music career would propel her housewife friend to a sort of armchair status. The two would forge an unlikely bond in 1957 amid a chance encounter at one of the singer’s venues, parlaying it over bacon and eggs at Louise’s house the next morning.

Louise (Cathy Barnett, left) gives no quarter amid her friendship with the iconic Patsy Cline (Katie Karel). Photo by Aaron Rumley.

Thus would they strike up a series of letters from 1957 until Patsy’s death in 1963, with the latter routinely signing herself “Always… Patsy Cline.” Her airplane fatality at age 30 hit Louise pretty hard, to the extent that Off-Broadway saw fit to birth a jukebox musical of the same name. It’s playing at North Coast Repertory Theatre as an alternative to the routine clutch of holiday fare, and that’s a good thing — but for every one of the 27 tunes, playwright Ted Swindley neglects the show’s biographical nature about five and a half times.

For all its fun, this piece leaves out decidedly more than it reveals.

The story is told through Louise’s eyes, which are wide with disbelief that her humble beginnings give way to an acquaintance with an artist of such celestial proportions. She pesters a Houston radio station to play Patsy’s hits, insists that her coworkers down a Schlitz with her famous pal and otherwise appoints herself Patsy’s de facto second banana. Patsy seems to get a kick out of the attention, likely relieved she picked a firecracker like Louise to level the grind to her career.

But the real-life Patsy was a bit of an enigma amid her many childhood illnesses, which some biographers cite as the cause behind her voice’s unusual quality. Indeed, her 1957 real-life appearance on The Arthur Godfrey Show (which Louise and Patsy fibbed to negotiate, according to Patsy’s granddaughter) is fraught with some backstage shenanigans.

You won’t hear about any of that in this show. Neither will you learn that Louise was crowned Miss Biloxi in 1949. Or that she was also friends with novelty songwriter Little Jimmy Dickens.

Or that her dad was bandleader Dick Alexander, who fueled her lifelong love of music.

Swindley… shies from invoking so much as Louise’s last name…

Or that she may have regarded Patsy’s real name (Virginia Patterson Hensley, never mentioned) with a touch of mirth.

Or that she remarried after her divorce, the latter marked amid her declaration that “Men are pigs!”

Or that Patsy was also a perfectly able pianist.

Or that Always could easily have become a nod to her real-life worldwide fame as Patsy’s No. 1 forever fan.

Biographical information like that can’t help but fuel a character — Swindley, however, shies from invoking so much as Louise’s last name, much less the handle of her very young son. Odd.

“I’m just up here havin’ a ball all by myself, y’know?” Patsy grinned during one of her early concerts. And she was — much to the character’s detriment. Whereas Swindley treats Patsy like a star-struck ingenue, a little research reveals that the entertainer harbored a dark side in her private persona, perhaps fearing she’d die young (some of her fellow stars said she exuded that sense when taking to her) and eschewing her field’s male domination (in 1973, she’d have the last laugh, as she was the first female inducted into the County Music Hall of Fame).

Meanwhile, Patsy fueled her legendary status through her weathered, mildly lusty, almost bedraggled contralto amid its tales of hard-paid dues. Actor Katie Karel sounds more like mezzo-soprano Tammy Wynette, with a generous helping of tremolo for effect. In other circumstances, Karel is probably a wonderful entertainer. Knowing what we know about Patsy, the glad-handing surface just doesn’t jibe.

Cathy Barnett (whose name screams country star) has a persnickety, rambunctious Louise going on, her wiry comportment peppering a nasally twang that hangs over the audience. She interacts with the patrons beautifully under director Allegra Libonati’s eye, but her spunk loses its luster anytime Swindley abandons the bigger picture.

In 1973, Patsy Cline became the first female inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Public media image.

Patsy’s band was called The Bodacious Bobcats — and this show’s version is ably led by musical director Daniel Doss, whose unobtrusive charges do the honors alongside hits like “Walkin’ After Midnight,” “Crazy” and the iconic “I Fall to Pieces” as well as crossover songs like Neil Sedaka’s “Stupid Cupid” and a traditional turn at “Bill Bailey.”

Marty Burnett’s set centers on an efficient transition between a venue space and Louise’s kitchen (the latter’s red, white and blue wallpaper is a nice touch). The rest of the tech is fine, with costumer Elisa Benzoni leading the way.

Today’s country artists have no trouble appropriating an agenda on the public’s behalf. Those guys and girls were raised on gut-bustin’ rock ’n’ roll, and it shows (to my delight) in their music. In Patsy’s day, country was largely relegated to its own station amid the rise of everybody from Elvis to Chuck to the Beatles. Patsy was among a handful of performers who sustained her genre more powerfully than it had any right to expect — but watching Always… Patsy Cline, you might never know it.

This review is based on the matinee of Dec. 19. Always… Patsy Cline runs through Dec. 30 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987-D Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach. The show is sold out at this writing, but the company is developing a waiting list. $45, $42 seniors. 858-481-1055,

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