By Jenn McKee
DEXTER – A "Saturday Night Live" writer once said that the show could leaven a risky sketch simply by putting Amy Poehler in it, calling the comedienne "a charm machine."
But Dexter's Encore Theatre, now staging Ted Swindley's "Always … Patsy Cline," may now lay claim to its own charm machine: Sonja Marquis, who plays a brassy Houston single mom (and Cline fanatic) named Louise.
When Louise learns that country music superstar Patsy Cline (Emmi Veinbergs) will be performimg in her town, she heads out to the venue hours early; meets and befriends the country music star; and convinces Cline to forgo her hotel reservation and instead spend the night at Louise's home. After staying up into the wee hours sharing stories, the two women exchange addresses and sustain their friendship through a series of letters.
This set-up may sound far-fetched, but the two-hour show was inspired by a true story. And although the show is primarily a showcase of Cline's music and distinctive vocal style, the admittedly light story of Cline's friendship with Louise provides the show with a loose narrative framework.
Set designer Kristen Gribben breaks the stage into three sections: Louise's cheerful, colorful 1950s kitchen on one end; a bandstand (where music director Dan Mikat's excellent 4 piece band plays) situated upstage center; and a honky tonk – where Louise comes to see Patsy's show – on the other end. Props designer Anne Donevan's sharp, witty attention to detail brings Louise's world to vivid life, thanks to items like a porcelain rooster creamer, copper jello molds, a juke box, and a rotating, light-up Schlitz globe (it's small, but just as kitsch-tastic as it sounds).
Costume designer Sharon Larkey Urick effectively uses clothes to distinguish not only Cline's different performances, but also different parts of her identity: classic cowgirl; glamorous chanteuse; slacks-and-sweater-wearing everywoman; and put-together, independent woman. Lighting designer Andrew Galicki, meanwhile, most notably helps guide our focus in the first act, before the two women meet.
And it must be said that the first act is the stronger of the two. Because Marquis is addressing – and, let's face it, unabashedly flirting with – the audience during the early scenes of the show, there's a palpable spark of joy that dovetails perfectly with Veinbergs' gorgeous renditions of Cline's songs in a concert setting. Yet after the two characters arrive at Louise's house for the night, the show shifts into a different gear, and Cline begins to sing as a means of sharing her stories with Louise, or of lulling Louise's son into a deeper sleep, and this framework inevitably feels more forced, and less organic.
Even so, "Always" is a really satisfying night of musical theater. Marquis employs her skills as a gifted improvisor to read the crowd and add moments of spontaneity; and her exaggerated, tell-it-like-it-is sassiness as Louise had the crowd eating out of her hand. Veinbergs, meanwhile, powerfully captures Cline's fascinating contradictions – she was fierce and somehow painfully vulnerable; she was the girl next door, but also other-worldly – with vocals that replicate the singer's trademark phrasing and style (scooping, subito piano, yodeling, etc.).
The show doesn't provide much biographical info about Cline, or offer any insight about her tragic, early death by plane crash at age 30. Instead, it focuses on a single night when two women became fast friends, and invites you to listen to a couple dozen songs on which Cline left her indelible mark. Wisely, director Thalia Schramm lets the show breathe, by giving her actors license to react in the moment, and invites us to be part of an irresistible girls' night out (and in).
"A secret's no fun unless you tell someone," Louise tells the audience, in a Dorothy Parker-like moment. So in the spirit of this sentiment, Encore should have a honky-tonk hit on its hands by way of "Always … Patsy Cline" – but you didn't hear it from me.
Tickets, $26-$32 for adults, with discounts available for seniors and youth groups, are available online at www.theencoretheatre.org, or by calling the box office at 734-268-6200. $15 student rush tickets are available one hour prior to performance time, if tickets are available. Must show valid student id.