I’m “Crazy” for actress Dianne Kocher, who plays one-half of a talented duo in Playhouse Merced’s charming ‘Always … Patsy Kline.” Kocher’s character, a plucky narrator named Louise Seger, tells the story in Ted Swindley’s play of how her life changed when she met the singer for a brief time several years before Cline’s untimely death in an airplane crash. Thanks to Kocher’s good-ol’-gal handle on the role, the show becomes a folksy, compelling tale that’s much more than just a standard celebrity musical revue.
Nancy O’Bryan, who plays the famed singer, doesn’t disappoint in the vocals department, either. O’Bryan belts out one standard after another with considerable aplomb. I’m not a Cline scholar by any means, but from what I’ve heard of her tunes, O’Bryan nails many of her mannerisms. I especially like her low, scooped-out tones and the rich, earthy timbre to her voice, all of which seem to convey a sense of maturity — and sometimes sadness — far beyond her years.
A terrific six-piece band, conducted by Joel Scott Shade — all hail live music! — adds a lot to the experience.
O’Bryan sings many of the famed Cline tunes concert-style, with Kocher’s character — a single mom who first becomes obsessed after hearing the singer on the radio — listening in her cozy kitchen (Corey Strauss’ set is simple and well-executed) or at a local nightclub. It’s through these vignettes that we learn of Louise’s passion for Cline’s music and her insistence that the singer be considered a true country “star.” My favorite scenes in the play, however, are when the two characters interact with each other, with Louise talking and Patsy singing, in moments of psuedo musical theater. It’s here that we see the flash of friendship, the fleeting bond between two strangers, and begin to pick up on Cline’s stubborn independence and feminist leanings.
The two strongest points of the show, Kocher’s acting and O’Bryan’s singing, are impacted somewhat by O’Bryan’s acting range. Again, I’m no Cline scholar, and I’m not sure if O’Bryan’s reticence — stiffness, even — are conscious directorial/acting choices. (Throughout this memory play, Cline is treated more like a ghost or apparation than fully formed character, and perhaps O’Bryan was striving for a sense of detachment.) But I found the effect a little off-putting. O’Bryan’s voice can be mesmerizing, no question about it, but too many times I felt she was so intent on technical verisimilitude that she shied away from actually inhabiting the role. Director Dustin Brown needed to find a way to help her convey more humanity.
Chad Phillips’ lighting design, from the smoky twinkle of a honky-tonk to the coziness of a late-night kitchen, is superb. I love the production design of this show: comfy but still a bit slick, with a kind of homespun show-biz spectacle. I don’t make it to Playhouse Merced’s community-theater offerings all that often because it’s a pretty hefty drive for me, but I’m almost always glad when I do. The venue is spiffy, the productions are polished and the enthusiasm is rampant. And if you’re a big fan of Cline’s music, this is a show you don’t want to miss.