By Michael Bowen

It ain't much of a play, but it's a hell of a concert. In Interplayers' season-ending show (through June 21), after playwright Ted Swindley has scheduled 27 Patsy Cline songs, there's not a whole lot of time left for verbal give-and-take -- you know, like a conversation between characters.

But then the tunes are so lovely in Always...Patsy Cline -- and Kittra Wynn Coomer sings them so beautifully -- that it all makes for a memorable evening of music-listening.

Coomer takes the stage with authority from her very first entrance, when she sings lyrics meant to encapsulate what her life was like in the late-1950s: "I'm on a honky-tonk merry-go-round... Starting out early, coming home late / Every night with a brand-new date." She approximates Cline's look well enough, and -- remarkably -- even her voice shares the same ballpark with those old Decca recordings.

Of course, singing Patsy Cline's songs and sounding like Patsy is an impossible and thankless task. It's like telling an actor, OK, we're going to dramatize the life of Edward Hopper, and while you're up there onstage, we want you to paint "Nighthawks." Hey, we're giving you 90 minutes.

But Coomer rises to the demands of excellence. In the lovesick "Walkin' after Midnight," she shows great range, reaching up high for some notes, then plunging into her lower register for the lines about her constant "searchin'." "I Fall to Pieces," another of Cline's half-dozen greatest hits, is done as a torch song, with Coomer in black capris. Lounging against a piano, she looks -- and sounds -- elegant.

As a two-character musical entertainment, Patsy Cline doesn't feature any big production numbers. Coomer gets a lot of costume changes (and she looks great, especially in the periwinkle gown she wears for her final appearance), but the show is hers to carry.

She carries it well: Act Two begins with throaty renditions of "Sweet Dreams" and "She's Got You," two of Cline's biggest chart-toppers. Then Louise (Maria Glanz), the Houston mother who befriended Cline in the last years of the singer's life, returns to narrate how the two of them decided after the show to sneak off for bacon and eggs back at Louise's house.

Glanz is affecting in the role of the adoring fan. Whether getting all down-homey with the audience or kicking up girlish heels in glee, she conveys enthusiasm well. The problem is that Swindley hasn't given her much to do except enthuse about Patsy. She's star-struck at the beginning, and she's still heroine-worshipping at the end, even after she and Patsy have shared a Schlitz or two.

But then Swindley put together this entertainment back in 1988 because there was a singer-actress at his theater who wanted to play Patsy Cline, and because there was an open slot in the schedule to fill. It shows.

His sense of dramatic structure is such that there are sequences when Louise is narrating things that Patsy said when Patsy is standing right there. But then there's nothing like telling us about the woman's life rather than actually showing it, especially when the purpose of a speech is to cover a costume change and fill time between musical numbers, as too many of Louise's speeches are. Glanz gets stuck with no place to go with her characterization. Besides, after getting lost so dreamily in that voice -- especially after the "Sweet Dreams" / "She's Got You" medley -- we can only be disappointed with the sidekick.

Director Kimberly Crawley adds some nice touches: Louise's introductory speech delivered in front of the stage, as if she's truly one of us; for her first glimpse of the country music star, Louise separated from Patsy by the longest possible diagonal on the stage; both Cline's death and Louise's grieving handled with simplicity.

But Patsy can never die, because Swindley hammers home that she'll be with us, Always... and of course the obligatory curtain calls require that she rise from the dead -- in this case, to sing "If You've Got Leavin' on Your Mind" and "Bill Bailey." Coomer's performance is the kind that leaves listeners clamoring for more.

Which brings up the question of the intended audience for this show. Country and theater don't often mix: If they were Venn diagrams, the fans of Willie Nelson and Willie Shakespeare wouldn't overlap much. But a show like Always...Patsy Cline offers an opportunity to demolish the walls that separate patrons of the cabaret and the country bar.

Country fans should flock to this show, even more than habitual playgoers: It's like actually being in a honky-tonk in 1961. If you think Shania Twain is country, you need to see real country -- and you ought to see this play.

Besides, there's an accomplished country band right up there onstage with Patsy and Louise. They call themselves the Bodacious Bobcats, and they're a sextet -- piano, guitar, steel guitar, fiddle, bass, drums -- that's integral to the play's atmosphere and Coomer's performance. Jim Bob (Dean Simmons) on steel guitar and Ray Bob (Jason Bell) on the fiddle (with his flourish at the end of "Sweet Dreams") are the standouts.

The whole experience of Patsy Cline was just plain fun, especially during numbers like "Seven Lonely Days," done as a duet in which both women rejoice in getting over the men who'd done 'em wrong: "Last week was the last time I cried for you," they sing, back to back and laughing together.

Yessir, by then the audience was a-hootin' and a-hollerin.' It was a great image to remember these two women by. After all, they had put on a wonderful performance in Interplayers' season-ending concert.

Publication date: 06/05/03

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