Sweet dreams of Patsy at Hudson Dinner Theater
Holly, Valens, Redding, Cobain, Joplin, Nelson, Darin, Marley, Cline.
American popular music is crowded with the names of performers whose untimely deaths spark endless "what if they'd lived" debates.
And for many of them their fame has soared in the years after they died, often to a degree undreamed of during their abbreviated lives.
"Always...Patsy Cline," now on stage at St. Croix Off Broadway Dinner Theatre, Best Western Hudson House Inn in Hudson, is an agreeable homage to one of those figures -- country music's foremost female vocalist, killed in a plane crash at age 30.
As such, "Always...Patsy Cline" resides somewhere between being a full-blown stage musical and a concert of her greatest hits.
There is the story of sorts, written by Ted Swindley and based on true events, that gives the play some dramatic structure: In 1961, Houston housewife Louise Seger (vivacious Lindsay Hinman) and a group of her friends show up early to hear Patsy Cline (sweet-voiced Stephanie Briggs) in a solo concert. By chance, the singer arrives early as well and strikes up a conversation with Seger.
That chance encounter leads to Seger inviting Cline -- who is traveling alone -- to join her for bacon and eggs at her house. (Imagine that happening today!)
The two women develop a friendship that results in an exchange of letters over the next two years, right up to the plane crash that claimed the lives of Cline, and fellow country stars Hawkshaw Hawkins, Cowboy Copas and her manager/pilot/guitarist Randy Hughes.
The two-act play moves back and forth in time, from the first moment Seger heard Cline's voice on the radio to the singer's death.
But in director James A. Zimmerman's fifth outing with the new dinner theatre, it's really all about the music. And there's plenty of it -- over two dozen songs, from the Willie Nelson classic "Crazy," to Cline's lesser known work like the melancholy "Three Cigarettes in an Ashtray," and even a few hymns.
As Patsy, actress Stephanie Briggs knows her way around the music. She is especially effective during Cline's "heartbreak" songs like "Faded Love," or "She's Got You." Yet she belts with the best on something like "Honky Tonk Angels."
Even though Briggs doesn't always have Cline's light, floating vocal qualities in the higher registers, she makes up for it with that "achy" quality that is so captivating in those old Decca recordings.
As Cline's improbable friend, spunky newcomer Lindsay Hinman bounces across the stage like the smitten fan that her character is. Though the reason for the show is to hear those classic songs, it's Louise's story that's being told after all, and Hinman relates it with an exuberance that quite literally left her breathless on occasion.
She's often frolicking around stage to the music. Nothing wrong with that, but sometimes the enthusiasm threatens to steal the focus from the vocals. That was especially true when Hinman seemed to be doing something closer to a pole dance than a country two-step.
Zimmerman's production features a capable five-piece band. However, the veteran musicians nearly overpowered even Briggs' strong voice on the opening numbers, but then seemed to settle down as the evening progressed.
If you're a Patsy Cline fan and enjoy hearing her classic songs performed live, or perhaps a younger person who wants to see why this singer still enthralls so many nearly 50 years after her death, then "Always...Patsy Cline" may well satisfy as a pleasant diversion on a nice spring evening.
"Always...Patsy Cline" continues Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings through May 19 at the Best Western Hudson House. Dinner between 6-7 p.m.; curtain 8 p.m. Call the box office at 386-2394, ext. 333 for information.
Drama critic Mike Norman is the former head of the UW-River Falls Journalism Department and author of the nationally acclaimed "Haunted America" series of true-ghost stories.