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Cline’s music, not life, takes center stage

By | 2018-01-15T22:33:59-05:00 September 23rd, 2010|Entertainment|

By Judith Cookis Rubens

Lana Hawkins stars in “A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline.” Photo: Farmers Alley Theatre

Country music legend Patsy Cline’s life was a mixture of struggle, success and tragedy. Her journey to break into the male-dominated music business of the ’50s and achieve pop crossover success has all the makings of great theater.
That, combined with her enduring songs and tragic ending – she died in a 1963 airplane crash at only 30 – make it no surprise that Farmers Alley Theatre chose the musical tribute “A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline” to open its third season.
If you’re looking for more backstory about the singer’s personal life or professional hurdles, you’ll be disappointed. However, as a polished concert of some 20 songs, it’s a triumph, thanks to Lana Hawkins’ stunning interpretation.
Hawkins, primarily a jazz and standards singer, takes on Cline’s daunting song catalog with conviction. She finds her voice and rhythm best in slower ballads such as “Always,” “Crazy” and the gospel-tinged “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Hawkins is backed by a hugely talented five-piece band, featuring guest fiddler Amberly Rosen. Cline’s backup vocalists, the Jordanaires, are recreated here with a winning male quartet.
Sanctioned by the Cline estate, the Dean Regan-created “A Closer Walk” made its U.S. debut in 1991. The premise is simple. A ’50s/’60s radio DJ and admitted Cline fan, Little Big Man, spins Cline’s tunes at radio station WINC in her Winchester, Va., hometown. As he ticks off her hits (not necessarily in chronological order), we get surface commentary about her performances and career upswing from dive bars to The Grand Ole Opry, Las Vegas and Carnegie Hall. There’s only scant mention of her marriages, family life and illnesses/injuries.
Little Big Man (John L. Mann) is a narrator, of course, but he’s also there to lighten things up. Throughout, he (literally) dons various hats, from over-the-top DJ, to sports announcer, to gruff newsman. It’s enough to set the timeframe, but not enough to explain what Cline likely faced in her short but stellar career.
We hear just a bit about her spiritual awakening and lean toward gospel music after a serious car accident. There’s talk of her standing up to music promoters and demanding payment for her musicians – a brave move, to be sure – but it would have been more effective coming from Cline herself in a short scene between songs.
The Patsy Cline we get is pure performer, given only a hint of dialogue with fans and her band. Given the script’s omissions, Hawkins has the huge challenge (though costumes help) of hinting at the singer’s evolution from spunky small town cowgirl to polished stage veteran. She is more believable toward the end of Cline’s journey, relishing the classic “Crazy” and communicating Cline’s on-stage joy.
In fact, director Kathy Mulay and musical director Marie McColley Kerstetter aim for a mostly uptempo, bright vision.
The backup Jordanaires pull double duty as on-air jingle singers, hawking everything from Mr. Clean to Winston cigarettes, to great comic effect. The foursome – Jeremy Koch, Preston Misner, Patrick Muehleise, Max Wardlaw – even get a chance to shine on their own, beautifully crooning “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “I’ll Fly Away.”
Playing a comic who opens for Cline, Tim Eschelbach offers the most genuine laughs of the evening, breathing new life into some seriously stale jokes (think mother-in-law and forgetful old folks humor). He and fiddle player Rosen are charged with keeping audiences engaged, and they deliver with very different styles. Eschelbach serves up dry humor and occasional improv, while Rosen’s infectious smile and toe-tapping dance-and-fiddle tricks are not to be missed.
Still, Mulay’s staging feels disjointed at times. Case in point is the emotionally wrought ending, featuring slide show images of the real Patsy Cline, backed by Hawkins’ angelic reprise of “Just a Closer Walk.” It’s powerful and Kleenex-producing, but, overall, felt out of place with the mostly upbeat hit parade of the singer’s catalog.

‘A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline’
Farmers Alley Theatre, 221 Farmers Alley, Kalamazoo. Extended through Oct. 10. $25-$29. 269-343-2727.

About the Author:

BTL Staff
Between The Lines has been publishing LGBTQ-related content in Southeast Michigan since the early '90s. This year marks the publication's 27th anniversary.