"Authorized biography" does not portend a spicy story, but that's only part of the problem with the theatrically disappointing, if sweet-sounding, Always...Patsy Cline, the long-running show at the CLO Cabaret.
The plotline on which a string of Cline tunes hang is thin to the point of brittleness. "Based on a true story," the program tells us, the play was originally written and directed by Ted Swindley in 1988, 25 years after the singer died in a Buddy-Holly-esque plane crash at age 30, as she was rocketing up the mainstream-pop hit parade with her third album. (A fourth, new LP was released shortly after her death, but as with many departed but recorded singers, the Cline discography now numbers more than two dozen variously packaged and repackaged discs.)
Always ... is primarily the story of a frumpy, boorish groupie, Louise Seger (played by Terry Wickline), an alleged Lone Star Stater who as portrayed here would be far more at home in Houston, Pa., than in Houston, Texas. It doesn't help that she has most of the lines, which are about either (a) how great Patsy Cline is, or (b) how she has insisted to other people how great Patsy Cline is. According to the script, Cline herself, played by Marlana Dunn in full-throated stardom, is just a li'l ol' gal who would get shafted by a shady promoter if the more worldly-wise Louise weren't around. Puh-leeze.
Pop culture is strewn with Byronesque idols, men who lived fast, died young, and inspired unbounded devotion for what may have been even the tiniest of oeuvres. Women artists, no matter how worthy and gifted, rarely get that kind of adulation after they die unexpectedly and far too soon. Nor do the dead bad boys of pop lore get shoved into niche-market status as readily.
Cline (née Virginia Patterson Hensley) started as a country-music singer, yes, but she had solid pop chops (and hits). And though she was certainly no bad-girl counterpart to the Byron-wannabes, she certainly wasn't the docile good little missy, either. No patsy was Patsy. The self-trained singer played hardball with the male managers and producers in charge of the music biz, yet she found the time and the heart to mentor fellow female artists. None of that makes its way into Always ....
Still, for most audience members, when the focus is an iconic singer, the biggest issue is: How does it sound? In that department, the Pittsburgh CLO production is a real winner, with Dunn's singing, and music director Deana Muro leading a talented and versatile instrumental ensemble.
So let's enjoy what we can: the songs, 27 of 'em. The biggest hits are here: "Crazy," "I Fall to Pieces," "She's Got You" and, of course, her first hit, "Walkin' After Midnight." There's also a smattering of rock/rockabilly like "Stupid Cupid" and "Shake Rattle and Roll," plus classic devotionals like "How Great Thou Art." Sure, many of the songs are rarely associated with Cline, but the variety of genres gives the show a good mix and the audience a good time. And helps to survive the "dialogue" in between.