Review By Leo Buck
For theater lovers anywhere, the reappearance of “Live” theater to area stages has been an excruciatingly long time in coming; happily however, for So Cal audiences a bright and buoyant light finally beamed this last weekend–marking the end of a drab, depressing–‘theater-less’ tunnel. That’s when “One More Productions”—the award-winning, resident theater company at the landmark “Gem Theatre” in Garden Grove California, got back to the serious business of making terrific theater once more, with the revival of one of their most popular productions in recent seasons: the two-character charmer, “Always…Patsy Cline”. The poster looming outside the box-office reads: “The Legend Returns”, and there couldn’t be a better way to describe the feat that the company has accomplished with the opening of their latest production. Produced in accordance with CDC, OC Health Dept. and City of Garden Grove’s COVID-19 guidelines, visitors are still requested to protect themselves and others when attending the theater by wearing face-masks and observing all social-distancing protocols (seating for this engagement is limited due to the need for greater audience spacing,) but the show is nonetheless a gigantic step in the right direction toward a restoration to normalcy—and what a step it is!
Then again, loyal fans and followers of “OMP” are bound to recall that this hasn’t been the only time “The Little Theater Company That Could” has prevailed after a period of adversity. In 2011, after “The Gem” suffered a fire on the eve of opening a new production of “Chicago”, what would have certainly spelled the end of a less determined group, they instead quickly changed theaters and the show very much DID go on. Now, they’ve done it again—this time celebrating their much anticipated return to offering local audiences top-flight LIVE entertainment, by presenting this irrepressibly enjoyable production. On opening night, “One More Productions” Co-Founder Damien Lorton (also the show’s Director and Musical Director) declared that theirs is the very first theater in Southern California to ‘come back’ after a whopping 405 days of closure”; “But we’re back!” he announced proudly when officially welcoming ‘First-Nighters’—each of whom, were by the same token, as delighted to be back after so long and, (as they sure enough demonstrated,) were revved-up ready to have a grand ol’ time! (Likewise, at the risk of editorializing, I too, don’t mind letting it be known that I’ve sincerely missed this brand of In-Person theatrical experience, and it’s so pleasing to enthusiastically assert that this show helped make up for loads of lost ground over the last year!) What’s more, for such a unique achievement, their selected program with which to “re-raise the curtains” is also especially fitting: “Always…Patsy Cline” practically defines the term “Unique Entertainment”, so it seems exceedingly proper that the bunch over at “The Gem” should resume giving audiences plenty of “Sweet Dreams” once again, by presenting a musical about the lady who knew a thing or two about them (–it’s even the title of one of her best loved songs!) This truly is one of those foot-stopping, hand-clapping festive celebrations of the kind of, magic only LIVE theater can conjure (in the midst of one ‘roof-raiser’, they even coax the audience to join right in and sing along!) In any event, what you’ve got is one production worth “walkin’ the floor over” (–another one of her hits) and is sure to inspire a few “sweet dreams” for everyone who sees it!
In her time, Cline was the ground-breaking Country Music Pioneer whose career flourished from the mid-1950’s until it was cut tragically short at the far-too-young age of 30 in 1963 in a plane crash. Since her death, Entertainment Historians, Musicologists and Pop Culture Devotees alike have come to acknowledge her as one of the finest musical voices of the twentieth century in any genre, and it’s a safe bet to say were it not for “Patsy”, there would be no “Dolly”, “Tammy”, “Loretta”, or “Reba”! Based on actual events, “Always…Patsy Cline” recalls the unlikely friendship that developed between a Houston housewife named “Louise Seger” and “Miss Cline”. As with any conscientious “Super Fan” worth their salt, the biggest brightest star in “Louise’s” Universe is her Idol–the acclaimed songstress of the title, which occasions the abundant musical ‘interludes’ that enliven her reminiscences. With a book by Ted Swindley that’s equal parts humorous and poignant, the score features all of the most renowned music of the titular music giant while “Seger” supplies the kitchen table narrative. Meanwhile, “Cline” floats in and out of the action singing her most distinguished tunes—and you can rest assured all of them are here, among them: “Crazy”, “Walking After Midnight”, “A Closer Walk With Thee”, “Sweet Dreams”, “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” and of course, the heart-tugging, “I Fall To Pieces”. There’s even a couple from the time which you might not expect like “Shake, Rattle And Roll” and “Stupid Cupid”.
“I’m gonna take y’all on a little road trip back to Texas” Louise begins, relating how she, then a simple 1950’s housewife and mother of two small children, living in the lone star state, met and eventually became friends with the first bona-fide female Superstar of Country music. Once upon a time, (for those out there who were born after the advent of “Zoom Calls”, “Tik-Tok”, “I-Tunes”, or anything ‘Amazon’) people got their music from radio, record stores, or saw it performed on countless variety shows—which is where the story starts. In January 1957, Louise informs us, she initially discovered Patsy’s incredible singing on the “Arthur Godfrey TV Show” (“She sang like I’d always wanted to sing!” Louise exults.) Sometime later, when Cline made a public appearance at Seger’s hometown night-spot, she further details how she was determined to get there extra early to guarantee having the best seat available. This also meant she was among the very few in the place when, as luck would have it, Patsy also arrived—alone—and admittedly a bit unsure of herself performing in a new venue with musicians she’d never worked with. Hearing this, the gutsy “Mrs. Seger” jumped at the unexpected chance to meet and chat with her idol. Sharing a quick drink at Louise’s table, the singer asked her exuberant fan if she wouldn’t mind standing by the drummer during Patsy’s ‘set’ to ensure that he kept the right ‘timing’ to her numbers (and not risk having them sped along at the wrong tempo.) Naturally, Louise was only too thrilled to do this and thus began their unlikely friendship which developed into an on-going pen-pal correspondence for several years (In fact, much of the dialogue here was taken directly from those same letters!)
Returning as “Patsy Cline”, Nicole Cassesso once again does a tour-de-force job in the role that garnered her TWO “Broadway World” nominations in 2017 and 2018. Seeing her on this occasion, it’s easy to understand why. To be able to embody the essence so completely of such an undeniably “Larger-Than-Life” personality like Patsy Cline, and to so effectively flesh-out her innate humanity, is a rare and genuine gift and, (as she’s proven time and again on “The Gem” stage,) it’s one Cassesso is in full command of. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this particular role–if anything, she’s wholeheartedly ‘grown into’ this part with her interpretation being much finer-tuned and nuanced than in previous productions. She has surely studied the woman she’s depicting, and has her vocal attributes, style and idiosyncrasies that made Cline so unforgettable, down pat–from the smallest inflection to the longest sustained note. Cassesso sets the gold-standard right off with “Patsy’s” preliminary salvo, “Honky-Tonk Merry-Go-Round”, before launching into the iconic “Back In Baby’s Arms”—both of which gave a delectable taste of what was to follow. Shortly after, her delivery of “God Didn’t Make Honky-Tonk Angels” is A-Plus, while her rendition of “Come On In, Sit Right Down,” ranks as another unabashed crowd-pleaser in an evening full of them (–and yes, her “I Fall To Pieces” is nothing less than brilliant as is “Your Cheating Heart”! Each can be counted as a pair if seismic jumps on the “Wow” scale.) These are followed up immediately by the bouncy, “Stupid Cupid” (This one too, practically dares you not to tap your feet and clap along!) Yet if Act One showcases “Patsy” in more of a concert like setting, and as such sees her slightly removed from the action of Louise’s reminiscences, (they don’t actually meet until late in the act,) Act Two gives Nicole the opportunity to give us an even stronger, deeper performance–both as a singer and acting-wise. Commencing as “Patsy” enters from the auditorium crooning “Sweet Dreams”, another of her classic ‘signature’ ballads, it’s an opportunity she categorically makes the most of! Before she’s through, her venerable handling of the touching “True Love” is bound to bring a tear or two to the eyes, followed by “If You’ve Got Leavin’ On Your Mind” which serves as the perfect capper to the whole she-bang. Were this not enough, she elevates the room with an even bouncier mood-lifting, foot-stompin, encore of “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home”.
Making this ‘reunion’ complete, is Dee Shandera as “Louise Seger”, and like her Co-Star, she is every bit as comfortable in her role as well. So too, Dee’s comic dexterity is even more spot-on this time around, enabling her many puns and asides to hit their mark with near laser-like precision (In one instance she sardonically reminds us: “This is NOT Steel Magnolias!”) Either way, the bountiful laughs she furnishes are huge! What’s just as exhilarating though, is how magnificently she matches Cassesso in energy and vibrance. Ms. Shandera provides the entire framework for the story being told, and her “Louise” is a genial, thoroughly relatable, “speak-your-mind’ type of Texas housewife (albiet one who’s a bit on the Earthy side.) In her adept hands, this woman is someone you wouldn’t mind having as your next door neighbor or helper at your child’s school, and viewing her portrayal here, one gets the very comforting feeling that there’s nothing unfolding on stage (or even the entire theater) that she isn’t safely in charge of. Skillfully–and completely–‘working the room’, she addresses the audience directly throughout. Indeed, much of “Louise’s” narration plays like a stand-up routine—and a decidedly side-splitting one at that. This makes it all the easier to surrender into her story (not to mention all the awesome music that’s part of it!) Although Shandera herself isn’t afforded many opportunities to sing in this role, as those who have seen her work on “The Gem” stage are very aware, she too can boast some hefty vocal talents in her own right, which makes her eventual duet with Cassesso, “Blue Moon Of Kentucky” very satisfying and most assuredly worth waiting for!
Being really more of a play with music than a ‘traditional’ ‘musical, there’s very little choreography (although at one point, “Louise” does stride down into the audience to ask a gentleman to briefly dance with her.) This doesn’t mean though, that the rest of the show’s supporting elements aren’t to the same degree as impressive or laudable as the rest of the production. The colorful costumes by Luis Cornejo—many of them created just for this 2021 production, are vibrant and eye-catching, recalling a very distinct (some might add somewhat eccentric,) time in the Country-Western landscape, those who performed it, and those who adored it. (Be sure to check out the figure in the lobby sporting one of his ‘more imaginative’ designs!) Special kudos also have to go out to the onstage six piece ‘Honky-Tonk’ band, called “The Bodacious Bobcats” –all sporting a moniker ending in “Bob” (even the lone female member!) This is a show about music and a famed singer after all so, while they may be situated toward the rear of the stage, the music they provide is undoubtedly always ‘center stage’ (They even set the mood as the audience shuffles in.) Led by Richard Abraham as “Joe Bob” on the piano, they include Mike Khalil as “Jim Bob” on the Steel Guitar (–which is a pretty important instrument for a show like this); Guitarist Jacob Gonzalez as “Billy Bob”; Bassist James Beall as “Jay Bob”; Rebecca Lynn as “Ray Bob” on the fiddle (–here again, another vital instrument); and Jeff Segal as drummer “Bob Bob” (“So nice his Momma went and named him twice” Patsy tells us.)
“Always…Patsy Cline” is an all-out, feel-good kind of show (–and isn’t it about time?) So “Don’t be late on the uptake”: the time has come at last to once again “Relax and have fun”—this here’s sure as shootin’ the show to do it with! Having officially opened on Saturday, April, 24th, “Always…Patsy Cline” will run through Sunday, May 16th, 2021 at “The Gem Theatre”– located at 12852 Main Street in Garden Grove, CA. Show-times are Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00 PM, with Sunday Matinees at 2:00 PM; Tickets may be obtained by calling “One More Productions” at (714) 741-9550, ext. 221, or logging onto www.onemoreproductions.com . (Note: Due to COVID-19 regulations, seating capacity will be limited and seats will be assigned by the Box Office based on your purchasing group. Please call in advance with any special seating requests.)
Production Stills By Lisa Scarsi, Courtesy Of “One More Productions” (www.onemoreproductions.com) Special Thanks To Damien Lorton, Shoko Araki, Tad Fujioka, Nicole Cassesso, Dee Shandera And The Musicians & Crew Of “One More Productions” 2021 Revival Of “Always…Patsy Cline” For Making This Story Possible.