Halsted Theatre Centre

The setting of Always, Patsy Cline is the tiny cabaret lounge at Mr. Kelly’s on Rush Street on the evening of February 8, 1963. The “queen of country music” is making an appearance in preparation for her upcoming solo concert at Carnegie Hall–a concert she will not live to perform, for she’ll be killed in a plane crash on March 5. “Hello, Chicago!” she greets the audience. “You’re all close enough to see if I got spinach in my teeth.” During the course of the program she will crack jokes about Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox hats and sing into a microphone only slightly smaller than one of those hats to an audience of city slickers who will hee-haw and cheer their favorite songs.

This kind of show is not so much a biographical play as an 80-minute impression. The audience knows of course that this is an actress portraying Patsy Cline, but the propensity of audiences to confuse the actor with the character–particularly when the character is a well-documented and familiar figure–sometimes makes one wonder just who is being applauded, and for what. (If this seems to overestimate audience naivete, one has only to note the number of actors who play doctors who are sought after as commencement speakers at medical colleges.)

So performance theoreticians may want to ponder the McLuhanisms in Always, Patsy Cline. The music scholars in the audience may want to index the various cross-genre embellishments in the orchestrations–a Roy Orbison bass-guitar riff here, a Jerry Lee Lewis triad there. The rest of us will probably just kick back and enjoy the music.

Though a little shaky at the start (quite understandable in light of an opening-night glitch that delayed the curtain long enough for the audience to get ornery), Rainie Cole has Cline’s silky-sweet soprano, with its effortless octave climbs and flirtatious grace notes (Cline once accused a songwriter of having written a dirty song, and the composer promptly countered, “It’s just the way you sing it, Patsy”). Cole has Cline’s awkward little-girl movements down pat, and in her gold lame suit and spike heels, she looks at least as much like Patsy Cline as Judy Garland. The band–Stephen Bocchino on piano, Jon Naberezny on lead guitar, Bob Cross on bass, and Elliot Peper on drums–looks about as much like a 1963 country band as Rick Astley looks like Merle Haggard (Cross, in particular, sports hair of a length that no one in Nashville would wear for another five years at least). But they make plenty of good, foot-stomping, hoot-and-holler music–especially their rendition of “The Battle of New Orleans,” done the way Johnny Horton probably would wish he’d done it.

Cline’s producer, Owen Bradley, had guided her from stardom at the Grand Ole Opry onto the cabaret-and-lounge circuit–and this being Mr. Kelly’s in 1963, Cline’s program contains Keely Smith-style ballads like “Heartaches,” the indestructible “Bill Bailey,” and the old torcher “You Made Me Love You.” But Cline cuts loose with some of her early material as well. She introduces a yodel, declaring, “Owen Bradley says he’s tired of my hillbilly blues–but I’m up here in Chicago and he’s down there in Nashville, so what’s he gonna do about it? Hit it, boys!” There are also, of course, her biggest hits: “Walking After Midnight,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “She’s Got You,” and “Crazy,” by a new young writer named Willie Nelson, which Cole saves until the very end, teasing us into thinking that she just might not do it (which was about as likely as Loretta Lynn getting a Sinead O’Connor haircut).

Always, Patsy Cline–which lets us hear where Dolly Parton got her public-relations strategy, Linda Ronstadt her vocal chops, and how far K.D. Lang still has to go with both–is an evening of solid, serviceable shit kicking.