By Jack Firneno
Some aspects of pop music don’t change.
Sure, the delivery methods may be different. In Always… Patsy Cline, Louise (Jo Twiss) discovers country singer Cline (Jessica Wagner) when she performed daily for a week or two on a morning variety show in the late ’50s. She then listens for her every day on her favorite radio station.
It’s not exactly American Idol and iTunes, but the question of why the songs are popular, why people connect to them, seems to be about the same. And, that’s what’s at the heart of Always, which opened at the Bristol Riverside Theater last week and is playing through Feb. 22.
Based on a true story, Louise befriends Cline, her favorite singer, at a gig and invites her back to her house after the show. The two stay up all night talking, and write to each other regularly until the singer’s untimely death in an airplane crash in 1963.
The two-act play, which focuses mostly on the night the two met, is nearly a one-woman show. Louise speaks to the audience and often says the singer’s lines even when they share the stage. Louise talks for the artist; Cline sings for her in return.
As Louise, Twiss hits the mark as an almost overzealous fan. She stomps around the stage and tells her story excitedly almost as if the audience were a co-worker she cornered in the break room. But she’s sincere and ultimately enjoyable, even as she takes more and more prominence in the story than the famed singer.
During the opening number, Louise sits in the shadows, listening on as the spotlight shines firmly on Cline and the band. But the stage lights stay on a little more during the next song later on, and more so on the one after that. As the two meet and become closer, Louise eventually sings alongside Cline or even takes the spotlight herself.
Lighting designer Corey Pattak also creates poignant moments, where the singer is isolated in the middle of the stage with a sort of smokey aura. Later, Cline appears almost as a ghost, singing a white dress and soft blue glow while Louise sits in more natural lighting.
Given how important the singer became to her, it’s also no accident that the band plays literally in Louise’s kitchen. The five-piece, complete with pedal steel, is set up behind set designer Adam Koch’s beautifully rendered ’60s kitchen and living room, occasionally throwing a smart remark her way.
And, Wagner does a fantastic Cline. She nails the singer’s low notes, high twangs and occasional grit, and emulates her big, iconic smile while keeping her already big onstage persona in check.
There are moments during the lonesome country ballads where her lips quiver and her face contorts subtly, as if she’s fighting back tears. It’s an artistic choice — Cline never broke quite that far from a smile when performing — but a good one that reveals the emotional depth that people like Louise latched onto.
And, it seems, that’s why Louise loved her so much. When Cline sang, her songs resonated with her on an almost spiritual level.
In the beginning, Louise calls the radio station so much she eventually has the DJ’s home number, and drags people hours early to the honky tonk where Cline will play to make sure they get the best table. We learn only through asides that her father was a musician, and she’s working as an electronics technician while raising two kids after a divorce.
But after the second act opens with a medley of country heartbreakers, we start to see how Louise identifies with Cline, who famously had marital troubles of her own. When Cline sits at the kitchen table singing “Two Cigarettes in an Ashtray,” Louise even manages to divulge a little more about why she and her husband split. By the end, we buy the idea that the two are kindred spirits.
It’s almost surprising how little time is given to the singer’s death, and perhaps one or two fewer songs in the second act could have left room for a little more development or a slightly smoother narrative.
But then again, her death isn’t the point: The songs will live on… always.
Always… Patsy Cline is playing at the Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe St. in Bristol, through Feb. 22. For more information, visit www.brtstage.org.