Twelve hundred miles away from Houston, Texas lies the cozy town of Mauston, Wisconsin. When I would visit my grandparents in their cozy white house on Martin Street, there was always old-school country music playing. Upon hearing Christina Hall croon Patsy Cline’s greatest hits, I was suddenly back on the hardwood floor hearing my grandfather’s well-worn cowboy boots tapping along. Who knew I still knew most of these songs? Music has a way of living on in our hearts.
On opening night of Firebrand Theatre’s “Always… Patsy Cline,” Hall was Patsy while Firebrand artistic director Harmony France played Louise, a Houstonian fan turned Patsy Cline pen pal. The two women will alternate the roles through the show’s run, which couldn’t be a more perfect synopsis of the kinship of this show. On one evening you get to witness France cheering on Hall as Patsy. Both have played Patsy before and clearly have the chops, as well as to alternate between fangirl and star. Their support of one another translates genuinely onstage as they sing their honky-tonk hearts out. Inspired by the true friendship of Patsy and Louise, this two-hander musical is a beautiful tribute to female friendship.
As Patsy, Hall is a dead ringer. From her smoky voice to falsetto “Stupid Cupid” moments, Hall is everything a Patsy Cline fan could want in a show bearing the singer’s name. She’s got star-quality stage presence that would make even the biggest jukebox musical hater (me) sway along. And those red sequin cowgirl getups by costume designer Steph Taylor? To die for.
And Louise? France practically runs designer Lauren Nichols’ juke joint. She’s a no-nonsense fan, if a little apprehensive. A “call the radio station eighty times a day to hear more Patsy Cline” kind of fan. It is a sheer delight to see her in this role. Whether she’s two-stepping with Patsy or admiring her work from afar, there is nothing side-kicky about her. She might not be the rising star that Patsy is, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a better stand-in manager when the going gets tough.
Although this is technically a two-hander, props must be given to the show’s band, The Bodacious Bobcats. With Andra Velis Simon (keyboard and conductor), Steven Romero Schaeffer (electric and lap steel guitars), Emma Sheikh (fiddle and acoustic guitar) and Tina Muñoz Pandya (drums), the Bookspan Theatre at The Den feels close to a barn-style honky-tonk back in Houston. This country quartet is stylin’, too, in matching rose-embroidered black ensembles.
This is one jukebox musical that doesn’t feel tired. It’s not Chicago’s millionth production of “Million Dollar Quartet” or “Mama Mia.” It’s more than that, a story based on letters, real letters, and a story we know much more about. These women are real. They give us a true-to-life map of how quickly people can become like family and how much that changes who we are. No matter which side of the stage you’re on. (Amanda Finn)
Firebrand Theatre at the Den Theatre, 1331 North Milwaukee, (773)697-3830, firebrandtheatre.org, $40-$50. Through December 15.